Dot Wordsworth


Misattribution is more common – and sometimes riskier – than you might think

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I couldn’t help laughing when I found that an Australian senator, Cory Bernardi, had deleted all his tweets from Twitter, apart from a single sad survivor: ‘Parliament finishing up for the year.’ Mr Bernardi had earlier in 2015 tweeted a striking quotation: ‘To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.’ He attributed it to Voltaire. In fact it is a remark by someone called Kevin Alfred Strom, a neo-Nazi white separatist from Alaska.

Quotations in speech often bore. I always thought it odd that John Tregorran in The Archers came out with literary quotations in conversation. No wonder Carol poisoned him. But letters to the press often have a quotation chucked in. Often it is: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ This is attributed to Edmund Burke. No trace of it has been found in Burke’s remains. The earliest example of the quotation (unattributed) is from an American prohibitionist in 1916, and the first attribution to Burke from 1920 by Sir Robert Murray Hyslop, also a temperance campaigner.

An even less likely quotation is foisted on poor old Cicero. It usually begins: ‘The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced.’ It was put on the record of the US Congress as Cicero’s by a representative in 1968. But the excellent website Snopes (which explodes urban myths — such as Black Friday originating in the sale of slaves), tracks it down to a historical novel A Pillar of Iron (1965) by Taylor Caldwell. There, elements of the quotation are dispersed in dialogue put in the old Roman’s mouth.

These quotations are the sort of thing people would write if they were Voltaire, Burke or Cicero. Another, attributed in all seriousness to Petronius Arbiter, begins: ‘We trained hard — but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganised.’ It ends with the word ‘demoralisation’. Far from being words of Nero’s courtier, they come in an article about a US jungle warfare unit by Charlton Ogburn Jnr, published in 1957. But there’s no jungle so tangled as attributing quotations.