I like quoting Einstein. Know why? Because nobody dares contradict you.—Studs Terkel
Funnily enough, Einstein did not say Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Nor did Confucius, Benjamin Franklin or Freud.
Nor did Einstein say Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. It’s not even likely that he did as, simply, Einstein was a German and the wordplay is specific to the English language which he did not speak.
Guillaume Apollinaire didn’t write, Come to the edge. We might fall. Come to the edge. It’s too high! Come to the edge. And they came. And he pushed. And they flew, however much it is beloved of new agey websites. Again, it’s hardly the sort of thing he would have written.
And Marcel Proust did not write, The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. He would never have used such a crass phrase as “have new eyes”.
What he wrote was, The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.
There’s a lengthy quotation, often attributed to Nelson Mandela and specifically citing his presidential inaugural speech of 10 May 1994, Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Except that this text appears nowhere in the speech—and it does appear word for word in a book, Return to love, by Marianne Williamson [on page 191, starting line 1, of the paperback edition (Thorsons, 2009); search for, say, “fabulous” on the Amazon “look inside” feature].
Enter a pundit
It is puzzling why all these misattributions are made.
Why they are endlessly repeated is no mystery: websites simply copy from each other endlessly with no care for, or concept of, accuracy and integrity.
In some cases, the real author of the quotation is relatively obscure. “Not everything that can be counted…” appears in Informal sociology: a casual introduction to sociological thinking (Random House, 1963, p13) by William Bruce Cameron, an American sociologist. (There is a further irony in that many people who do wish to exonerate Einstein from making this remark go on to attribute it to a different William Bruce Cameron, an American comic.)
Did Cameron feel his baby had a greater chance of survival if he abrogated his paternity in favour of a Greater Man? It seems unlikely. Wouldn’t you want to be known for saying something clever? After all, when Oscar Wilde once heard something particularly witty, he remarked “I wish I had said that”, to which his friend James McNeill Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will”.
Perhaps Einstein thought it was so good, he stole it. Well, hardly. Einstein died eight years before the publication of the book.
Perhaps other people, reading Cameron’s line and thinking it was eminently quotable, decided it was just too passé to be seen/heard quoting from a mere academic and decided their own intellectual standing would be enhanced if they were recognised as quoting the thoughts of a Great Man. So this quotation got dumped, like so many others, on Albert.
However, Marianne Williamson is pretty well known among people who like that sort of thing and is a regular on Oprah, so is hardly a shrinking violet. But I guess Mandela still has an irreplaceable cachet of Greatness that has so far eluded Ms Williamson and with which people wish to associate.
In some cases, the misattribution is more clearly a mistake. “Come to the edge…” was written by Christopher Logue for an exhibition about Apollinaire in the sixties and appeared on a poster advertising the show.
WC Fields didn’t say Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad. That was said of him by the humorist Leo Rosten at a “roast” (whatever that is—perhaps it’s a barbecue).
And Churchill didn’t say, Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. What he said was “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (my emphasis). In other words, he was quoting someone else.
“I would have written a shorter letter…”—which I have also seen widely attributed to Winston Churchill—was written by the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century. Hardly an obscure source, I would have thought, even for an American audience.
Even though you would have thought that the opposite effect—of obscure people like me claiming to have uttered the words of the Great and Good—would have been far more prevalent, it is relatively difficult to find examples.
[I am reminded of an incident at school, in an English lesson, when a boy put his hand up and asked the master, “How do you spell ‘beginning’?” “Why do you want to know?” said the teacher. Quick as a flash, another boy said “He’s rewriting the Bible”, which is pretty good for a 12 year old. Alas, my impeccable honesty prevents me from claiming the joke as mine.]
The plot thickens
The most obscure source I’ve found is that for “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”. This actually appears in a pamphlet published by Narcotics Anonymous in 1981 and deathlessly called Narcotics anonymous. There is even a pdf of the original document [scroll to page 23 of the pamphlet (page 50 of the pdf); it’s in the fourth and third lines from the bottom of the page]. Now, if the, appropriately anonymous, author had known this had been said, word for word, by Einstein, wouldn’t he/she have put, “Insanity, as the great physicist Einstein said, is repeating the same mistakes…”.
Apart from the simple fact that, if I tell you Mandela said “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate…”, I would be telling you an untruth—since he didn’t—what if Mandela didn’t actually agree with the sentiments, or didn’t like the way they were phrased? For example “brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous” doesn’t sound like Mandela to me.
What if a different misattribution implied the supposed author held views he didn’t—which might be offensive, possibly even illegal, or just unkind?
After the second world war, a joke was widely attributed to Churchill: An empty taxi arrived and out of it stepped Attlee. It made me smile—but, he didn’t say it.
What Churchill did say, when he found out about the joke, was: “Mr Attlee is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anybody who does.”
Isn’t that misattribution a subtle form of character assassination of Churchill?
Mind you, Churchill also didn’t say, Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy, and the lash. When he heard about that one, he did say he wished he had said it.
Selected (attributed!) quotations:
> Quote investigator [external site]
> Wikiquote [external site, probably the least unreliable website of quotations]
> The wise words of Maya Angelou. Or someone, anyway [NY Times article]
A ‘Quotation of the moment’ appears on the home page. You can change the quotation by refreshing the page.
by Jeremy Marchant . edited 11 march, 10 april 2015 . image: Free images
What an excellent article and I must say I didn’t realise how prevalent mis quoting was. Must check back over the quotes I love to make sure they are the real thing.