Many pearls of wisdom- and I used ‘pearls’ advisedly because such things are very subjective- have been handed down over the years. One of the many things humanity has mastered is the art of parroting statements made by other people. We use famous quotations as a crutch quite often.
It can be the most appropriate or the wittiest response to a situation or it could be a way to avoid doing your own thinking.
Our love for good quotes has been so enduring that quite often we abandon context, nuance or even accuracy to give a good quote a long shelf life.
My favourite example is probably one of the most famous quotes of all time. On being informed that Parisians were starving, Marie Antoinette- wife of Louis XVI, the King of France- supposedly retorted ‘Let them eat cake.’
It is a pretty good quote- witty and brutal and one that would give a great insight into a famous historical figure. The problem is that there is no evidence that she ever actually said it.
Infact the quote first gained currency when she was nine years old and a long way from being queen and one of the most powerful women in Europe. Yet it stuck and poor Marie Antoinette has got a bad rap over the years based strongly on that callous quote.
History is not just written by the winners- it is written by those with the best story.
Sometimes a great quote becomes established but at the loss of the full nuance intended by the person who uttered it. When he was inaugurated as president of the United States in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech that was by many accounts an excellent one.
The sentence that captured the public imagination and has been recycled endlessly since then was ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ It has often been used as a sort of inspirational rallying cry.
But it is only in reading the rest of the quote that one realizes what he was really trying to say. Roosevelt qualified those sentiments by adding ‘nameless, unreasoning, , unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’
This changes the tone of the statement- Roosevelt was careful to add that it was not fear in itself that was to be resisted but a specific kind of fear-unreasoning, unjustified fear.
It is not quite as catchy, but it is a more accurate interpretation of what he meant to say. On the face of it, the quote ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ is so absurd and meaningless that it cannot realistically be considered profound.
Sometimes a popular misquote does not significantly change the meaning of the original, but does ignore some nuance. Lord Acton is frequently quoted as saying ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ What he actually said was ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
The word missing from the misquote is a more accurate reflection of human behavior as opposed to the misquote which makes it sound like universal, unbending rule. That’s somewhat similar to Gordon Gekko’s iconic ‘Greed is good’ speech in the film Wall Street.
Gekko actually said ‘Greed-for lack of a better word- is good.’ Again, it is not a big change in meaning, but it does give more nuance to the quote. Some might see all this as nitpicking, but the accuracy, context and full meaning of quotes are important. Unfortunately, it is an endeavor that is a lot less interesting than the status quo.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer