Familiar (Mis)Quotations

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (February 14/21), Rebecca Mead, in an essay called “Middlemarch and Me,” describes her efforts to track down the origin of a saying attributed to George Eliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Mead first encountered the quotation on a refrigerator magnet, “set in sans-serif type on an aquamarine starburst background.” But, Mead writes, “the sentence didn’t sound to me like anything George Eliot would say.” Uh oh, I thought to myself. This is going to end badly. Not only will the quote certainly prove a fake but also Mead is going to be bewildered by the discovery. No professional action will be taken.

Every academic by now knows the routine. You come across a pithy quote by a famous author that doesn’t sound quite right. No source text is given. A general web search yields ten pages of links to self-help sites or quote-a-day webpages. A Google Books or Google Scholar search will offer links to published self-help books or articles going back to the 1980s. None of the sites will offer a full citation or even gesture toward a source text. You sadly conclude that the quote is bogus. Such is academic life in the age of the search engine.

My own moment of dismay came when the president of the small Southern liberal arts college where I was first teaching -- my first job after receiving my Ph.D -- used a suspicious quote in an email sent to all faculty. “ ‘The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes' -- Proust.” A quick Google search offered the usual inspirational webpages, all featuring the quote as a snippet of wisdom, not literature. However, I had the 1929 C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on a shelf near my computer and I turned to Volume 5, Chapter 2, “The Verdurins Quarrel with M. De Charlus.” There was the passage in the context of the narrator’s long reverie on the profundity of a musical work by a composer named Vinteuil: “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; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.” The college president’s quote was but a small fragment torn inappropriately from a broad and complex tapestry. What should I do?

I know that I’m overly scrupulous. I’m the sort of professor who insists that “Shakespeare” did not say “To thine own self be true,” but that Polonius did in Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (~1603). I regularly fail students who do not cite sources fully and properly in their papers. I send them to the library catalog (the road not taken) or to Wikipedia to find the proper source. If it isn’t there, I tell them to put it there. If everyone can be an editor, Wikipedia is more a blessing than a curse.

Take the case of a Gilbert K. Chesterton quote that I first encountered as the epigraph on a clever student’s final paper: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I suspected that Chesterton didn’t say exactly that, despite the 40,000+ Google hits that say that he did. Naturally, none of the websites provide a source text. The quote sometimes appears as “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly” but the results are the same. Like “it is never too late to be what you might have been,” the “worth doing badly” saying has a kind of catchy truthiness. It circulates as wisdom, untethered to context.

After a ten-minute search I found that G.K. Chesterton actually wrote this: “These things [by which he means ‘writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose’] we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly” (Orthodoxy, 1908). Chesterton’s point here is not that things worth doing are worth doing badly but that some things one must do oneself, however badly they are done. “Blow your own damn nose” would be a pretty good paraphrase and might even work as a refrigerator magnet.

And yet, in a more obscure essay called “Folly and Female Education,” which appears as Chapter 41 in What’s Wrong With the World (1910), available on Google Books, I found, hours later, that Chesterton indeed wrote something similar to what my student quoted: “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Chesterton’s context is the folly (as he puts it) of educating women. Women, he argues, should be taught nothing in order to be capable of doing things only for love, not for profit or (the horror!) scientific or academic inquiry. Once again I found that the popular saying was a misconstrued fragment torn from (in this case) a rather disturbing and patronizing context. Apparently if a thing is worth quoting, it is worth quoting badly.

Flipping through the pages of Rebecca Mead’s article, I found myself irritated by her earnest tone as she searched for the quote in dusty old George Eliot compilations and among tenured academics. With a presumably straight face one scholar says, “It doesn’t sound like George Eliot to me -- too simplistically phrased and too pat, and too brief!” A Harvard professor tells Mead that she assumes the saying was “apocryphal,” a more sophisticated term than counterfeit. Mead intrepidly calls up a self-help author who used the quote in the title of her book who admits -- surprise! -- that she has never read George Eliot since Silas Marner in high school. Chesterton, I imagine, would approve of the circulation of a colorful but inaccurate or decontextualized Eliot quotation in women’s self-help books and refrigerator doors because of the uplifting “truth” it contains. I don’t.

Does Mead, a seasoned New Yorker writer, really not suspect the obvious, that in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, fake quotes flourish? That their circulation requires not bewilderment but professional vigilance? In her initial hunting, Mead had already discovered the ersatz Eliot in spiritual books and self-help websites. Only one scholar interviewed by Mead stated what clearly should be obvious: that the source of a saying was most likely a greeting card company. Mead concludes, dolefully, that she “had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.” Why not use her authority to do the rest of us a favor and call the fake a fake, once and for all? We could then list it on the handy Wikipedia page “list of misquotations.” Instead Mead wrings her hands.

My first teaching job in the South was not a good fit for many reasons, including my irritation with the fake-quote-spouting President. She had risen to the position via the route of student affairs, not teaching; her time in office had been marked by a relative indifference to academics and scholarship. One April morning during my last semester there (a job offer from my current university safely in hand), she sent an e-mail to the entire faculty with the following quote: “ ‘It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’ -- Charles Darwin.” In a prickly mood, I decided to hit “reply all” and call her on it. “Greetings,” I wrote, and then the following:

The real question is who really said this? It wasn’t Darwin. This quote is often (wrongly) attributed to him but Darwin was never so pithy. I’ve read most of what Darwin wrote (including his letters) but it isn’t there. In fact, there is a rather vibrant debate among Darwinists and social Darwinists about who first wrote that quote; some say it was Herbert Spencer who wanted to make Darwin sound “easy.” This debate gets swallowed up by the number of Managerial Quote websites that continue to peddle the quote without proper attribution. As a professor, I’m sure you agree that we need to teach our students to cite sources correctly. Attribution is the lifeblood of scholarship.

Pardon the pedantry, but this is precisely what my job description as a literature professor requires that I do in response to disembodied quotes without proper citations.

Yours truly,


I would not advise young professors to try this at home. But, as I added in a follow-up e-mail, “T.S. Eliot wrote (in his essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Tradition [1922]): 'Some one (sic) said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know.'

With so many texts online, it may be easier than ever for amateur misquotations to breed, but it is just as easy for professionals to set the record straight. In other words, Rebecca Mead, “It is never too late to be the Wikipedia editor that you might have been.”

Hollis Robbins
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Hollis Robbins is a professor of humanities at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Going Green

If one thing bothers the president of U of All People, it’s being caught behind the curve, whether it’s in technology, sports, or even pedagogy (though curiously not in teachers’ salaries). Given UAP’s humble start as a community ag school, this attitude is perfectly understandable, especially since the citizens from the neighboring towns of Glutch and Glim still refer to U of All People as Ditchwater High, from when the old high school was on this site.

It gives President Bachtrach great pleasure, therefore, to proclaim that, starting in fall 2011, the campus will embrace a host of enviro-friendly measures that will put surrounding schools to shame. “The only way that U Hoo will be able to compete with us,” Bachtrach recently announced, “is by turning green with envy” -- a line reprinted in the student newspaper, Vox Omni Populi, picked up by AP, and recently aired in a YouTube video devoted to Funny Things College Presidents Say. Of course, so far, all we have are a bunch of proposals, along with a measly nonrenewable grant from the Glutch Chamber of Commerce, but that hasn’t stopped us from brainstorming and wish-listing. Below are some directives from the Green Initiative Team, U of All People, or GIT, UAP:

No toilet paper in the public restrooms. Time to embrace the Third World not just with our hearts, but with our hands.

Recycle and reuse (almost) everything: white paper and plastic bottles -- yes. Answers from your roommate’s calculus test -- no. Recycling competitions and quotas: the Bachtrach Order of Merit to whoever can reuse 400 paperclips a week!

Heat recovery from hot air generated in lectures. If this doesn’t work, check with medical experts to make sure students can still concentrate and text with frozen fingers, then set thermostats to 32 degrees in winter.

Solar panels on all surfaces aimed at the sun, including the shining bald pates of certain faculty members. This will put U Hoo to shame, since they have only one dinky sun-powered traffic sign, powered by the aluminum foil wrappings left over from lunch.

Wind power stations at all available junctures, mainly in the breezeways between halls.

Automatic regulators that shut off heat and light in all rooms without movement for five minutes. Note: this may present a problem for professors who rarely stir during lectures and induce a similar immobility in the students.

Rip out the AC in the dorms and replace with ice cubes and folding fans.

Take all the stair machines, exercise bikes, treadmills, and rowing machines from the recreation center and put one in each classroom, designating a student in each to generate power for the lights.

Bike- or walk-to-school incentives, including the elimination of all parking lots. Get rid of all shuttle buses and replace them with pedicabs run by students who no longer have Exercycles to use at the recreation center.

Find a use for all the ditchwater that accumulates along the sides of Entrance Avenue after even minor rainstorms. We don’t still want to be known as Ditchwater High, do we?

David Galef
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David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.

My Chancellor's Crazy. And I Love It.

When I first heard about it, I said to myself, “How do I kill this idea?”

My chancellor wanted to participate in a reality show. What a nightmare!

It was during my first months on campus. A new job, at a University of California campus on the rise. Great plans to help this campus break into the national consciousness. So very many heavy, strategic communications activities to organize.

And now a reality show. What a nightmare!

My internal dialogues simmered: “Boy, they really need me here. Who in his right mind would want to engage with this side of network programming? We have no editorial control! What if they catch something bad on film and there’s hell to pay?”

How could I, a communications professional with years of university experience, embrace such a thing? I had little choice. The conversations had been going on for more than a year. Welcome to campus, James. We’re doing “Undercover Boss.”

Getting a real dose of reality reminded me, with extreme clarity, that: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and (3) I don’t know everything.

Get Us in The New York Times

What does it take to get someone’s attention these days? How do we break through the clutter we created, along with thousands of other distinguished research universities and fine liberal arts schools and wonderful community colleges?

Given the lives we transform, the discoveries we create, the communities we help, we all deserve to be on the front page of The New York Times. It’s a fact I have been reminded of frequently, across 25 years’ worth of media relations and communications management at NYU, UCLA, Thunderbird, USC, UC Merced, and a few places in between.

We hear it from students, professors, board members, parents of students: “Why can’t you get The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to write about us? If we just told our story better, we’d get more publicity!”

(Did you ever find yourself at a loss for words? Not because you can’t think of anything to say -- rather, because there is too much to say? You want to take the NYT, WSJ, LAT or WaPo, roll it up, shake it wildly, and say: “Well why don’t you just pick which of these stories should be bumped off the front page for a smarmy feature on our campus? The major political story? The major economic story? The compelling bus strike? The investigative piece on misuse of public funds?”)

But of course, we don’t do so. We don’t yell. Not externally, at least. We put on that serious “trust-me-I’m-a-communications-professional” look and stammer a few things about our recent pitches (and successes, if any) to The Gray Lady. Our comprehensive strategy for national and global communications domination. Our extensive experience talking with journalists and meeting their needs and those of their readers. That’s how I felt in this situation and what I’d have liked to have said out loud.

Lessons learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.

In the build-up to the filming, only a few of us on campus were allowed to know about the project. We drove others crazy asking for help for a special initiative we couldn’t discuss. We signed legal nondisclosure forms that included the prospect of personal liability of six figures if we broke the code. That’s six figures per incident! I didn't even tell my wife. (About the show. If she knew about the show that’d be O.K., probably, but I didn’t know how to tell her I just signed the rest of our financial lives away if we slipped up. So I didn’t tell her anything.)

Behind the scenes, the chancellor’s top associates, sworn to secrecy, then begin asking managers across campus to do things we’d usually never do. (“Can you please find us staff and faculty members with compelling stories who wouldn’t mind signing their own nondisclosure forms, and then will work and be filmed for a few hours with a strange man named ‘Pete?’ Um, and trust us, this is all above-board?!”)

Our Protagonist

Enter our protagonist, “Pete.” Chancellor Timothy P. White. Dude is so sure this reality show segment will be great for our campus that he agreed to shave his own head to make sure he’d look different while filming took place for “Undercover Boss.” One of the reasons I came to UCR -- along with several other newbies here -- is Tim White.

White had his own personal journey: immigrant to California from Argentina as a kid. Community college at Diablo Valley in the Bay Area, then a bachelor’s from Fresno State University and a master's from Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), then finally a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.

Despite his serious chops as an academic, Chancellor White is an authentic person first, an academic leader second. He makes others comfortable, he’s funny, he’s direct. Those of you who watched the show on CBS last Sunday saw what I mean. Chancellor is the real deal -- on a reality show! I’m not quite sure how one charismatic, grounded person can hold such sway over the camera, over a crowd. But one thing that comes through is that he’s able to laugh at himself, take a ribbing, and stay on message.

And I’m also finding out that he’s a pretty good teacher.

What I learned: (1) I don’t know everything; (2) authenticity counts; and, (3) I don’t know everything.

James E. Grant Jr.
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James E. Grant Jr. is assistant vice chancellor for strategic communications at the University of California at Riverside.

A President With a Lot of Friends

Smart Title: 
Iowa's David Skorton uses "The Facebook" to stay in touch with students.

Son of Sokal: Conference Accepts Bogus Paper

Smart Title: 
MIT grad students use computer program to generate substance-free paper -- with plenty of jargon and graphs -- and a conference accepts it.

Reality TV 101

Smart Title: 
New television show features competition among bright low-income students -- and admissions officers as judges -- for a full scholarship.

Community Colleges to Jay Leno: Shut Up

Smart Title: 
A president challenges the late-night comedian to a motorcycle ride -- and a talk about education.

Skip vs. Larry vs. Camille vs. Freeman ...

Smart Title: 
2 magazines sponsor election for the title of top public intellectual.

Look Out Orange County

Smart Title: 
Boston College spoof shows that "The O.C." isn't the only entertainment that can hook viewers on popper collars and preppy problems

A Shirt Isn't a Prerequisite

Smart Title: 

Some things learned in school will inform major life choices that students make during college. Take shirtlessness, for example.

Jacob Authier, a junior at Chapman University, in Southern California, was home-schooled, so he never had to wear a shirt to class. "I have plenty of shirts I like," the film major said. "I just don’t like to wear them all the time.”


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