Save up to 90% on a Hartford Courant subscription. Click here to sign up now!
CT Now

Don't quote me on that — unless I said it

"You learn to be your best self by sometimes being your worst self."

Who said that first?

As far as I know, I did, and I said it for the first time Tuesday, the day I decided to run a little experiment in misattribution in the quote-happy land of Facebook.

I made up a "quote" that offered a little bit of Oprah-era uplift. I attributed it to 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth. I posted it.

And I waited for someone to tell me I should have my college degree revoked.

Before I go any further, let me apologize.

To all of you who clicked "like" on that quote when I put it on my Facebook page, forgive me. You should be able to trust what I post.

And I apologize to Mr. Wordsworth, too, for linking him with words that were more fitting for a BuzzFeed list.

But my duplicity was for a worthy cause, a way to fortify my plea:


Let's all stop and think before we quote again.

Before we re-post that quote by Mark Twain or Nelson Mandela or Eleanor Roosevelt or whoever is inspiring us with a quotable quote today, let's take a deep breath and ask: Who really said this?

There's a decent chance that it's not Mark Twain or Nelson Mandela or Eleanor Roosevelt.

I've ranted about misattributed quotations before and was provoked to whimper again after recently discovering this quotation floating around on Twitter:

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

The author of those words, according to the tweeter?


But I never said that. Mark Twain did. I think.

I also didn't say, "If you think guns are the worst legal weapons out there, think again!" — another line that is roaming around with my name attached.

I have no idea who did, but whoever said it would surely prefer that I not get credit.

I also didn't say, "In the hands of a great poet, words have ways of affecting us in ways we don't understand."

I Googled it in search of the real author. Kenneth Branagh maybe?

Most of us have been guilty of misquoting or misattributing at some point in our lives, and there was a time when I was gullible.

If someone sent me a greeting card or gave me a mug with a quotable quote on it, I didn't think to doubt the provenance of those pithy words. I was also more willing to believe the quotes and attributions posted on Internet sites.

No more. Now I know that in an era of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, misattributions multiply like rats in an alley.

"Misattributions have a very long history, but the frequency has increased in the Internet age, I think," said Garson O'Toole when I emailed him.

O'Toole is the pseudonym of a Yale Ph.D. who runs, an online site filled with regular reports and deep research on quotations.

Unfortunately, he said, online sites that seem authoritative aren't. He named a couple that would be recognized by anyone who has ever gone in quick search of a good quote for a term paper or a speech or a sympathy card.

In the hierarchy of world problems, misattributed quotes are toward the bottom of the list. But anyone who cares about words should also care about who said those words.

If you're curious about what you don't know, check out O'Toole's site, which includes information on how to verify quotes.

As for my fake Wordsworth, a couple of people smelled a fraud, including an old friend who emailed me to warn me in private that he thought I was mistaken.

"That doesn't sound like Wordsworth to me," he said. "The wrong kind of vocabulary."


But I do believe that you learn to be your best self by sometimes being your worst self.

Twitter @MarySchmich

Copyright © 2015, CT Now