When is a quote not a quote? | Series 1, Episode 1

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Episode 1 transcript

When is a quote not a quote?

As some of you may know, each day we put up a quote of the day. It’s something vaguely literary and inspiring set to an image. It started as an AI project. The computer program takes the quote and tries to match it to a free-to-use picture from Adobe Spark using metadata. Sometimes the results are surprising. Sometimes they’re powerful. Sometimes they’re quite unsettling. You can see them by following our Twitter account. On this particular day it was a Mark Twain quote:

The Man Who Does Not Read Has No Advantage Over the Man Who Cannot Read

And within hours, an eager tweeter delightedly announced. “This is not a Mark Twain quote”, brandishing a link to an ‘authority website’ which on closer inspection was paid for by Google advertising, and relied on a ragtag collection of sourced references including a Huffington Post article. All of this was accompanied by a photoshopped picture of Mark Twain himself, lips puckered, looking super indignant.

For anyone interested, check out the ‘Quote Investigator‘ website.

This got me thinking. Was the investigation based on a predetermined premise, or did the investigator follow the evidence?

Can we prove that Mark Twain did say those words? Surely a difficult task in an age where speech was rarely captured and audio and newspaper reporting of actual dialogue tended to be limited to court cases, sermons and political speeches.

Of course, if it’s in print it’s easier to prove that someone wrote a memorable line. Isn’t it? Was every line in the Count of Monte Cristo written by Alexandre Dumas or as I liked to say to KS3 classes, Alexander Dumb-ass, given that he allegedly wrote just the plot outlines and employed a team of writers? Alexander Dumb-ass isn’t mine by the way  – I stole it from Lorenzo Carcaterra.

And, of course, we know – because their names are on the publishing copyright and printed on the records  – that so many pop band managers in the 1960s wrote or co-wrote their act’s songs. Didn’t they?!

Perhaps this should be looked at another way?  Can we prove that Mark Twain didn’t say those words? It’s easy to say something didn’t happen because no evidence could be found over 100 years after the fact.

This begs the question, can we shed any light on why these words were widely attributed to Mark Twain if he didn’t say them?

That’s not to suggest by default that he did say it. Twitter today is evidence enough that if one person with enough followers says something happened, hundreds of people will pile on in agreement without ever checking the veracity.

But interestingly, if Twain didn’t say it, who did? More often than not, if a quote is misattributed, there’s usually a source or a person to pop up and take the claim for it.

For example, John Lennon is frequently quoted saying that Ringo wasn’t the best drummer in the Beatles. Except that he didn’t, and there are plenty of sources to show that in fact, Jasper Carrot uttered those words in 1983, including Jasper Carrott’s office. But further delving shows that Geoffrey Perkins wrote those same words for a BBC radio comedy called Radio Active in 1981 and there’s a recording of it. Case closed?

So why has no one else taken credit or been credited with this juicy Mark Twain-sounding soundbite? Is it something that can ever be resolved? Is it something that ever should be resolved?

A more sobering question. At what point is it impossible to prove a quotation, and are there some circumstances where we shouldn’t even try to?

Think of this. It’s 1656 and you decide on a whim to announce in the town square that a particular guy in the middle east might not have said various words 1600 and a bit years earlier. This brazen act would surely have got you convicted of blasphemy.

Even calling the same individual a very naughty boy in 1979 could, apparently, cause great harm and destroy someone’s faith. Except, of course, it was Brian and not the son of God, who was branded naughty – a small point lost on the Bishop of Southwark at the time.

In some parts of the world, today questioning the provenance of a particular prophecy will result in a death sentence.  On Twitter in 2022, failing to provide a quote tweet or convenient proof that someone did say something just over a hundred years ago might get you ridiculed. Both the world and Twitter are strange places.

We probably don’t know who said it… But I’d be very interested to know why a snappy and memorable quote was attributed to Mark Twain, without counterclaim, if he didn’t say it.

The takeaway – question everything you read on Twitter, however powerfully it has been presented as fact or falsehood. In education too, we should all be aware of opinions presented with great authority and furious gusto – that turn out not to be facts.

And in this case, Let’s just enjoy the quote. If it makes us stop and think for five seconds isn’t that all that really matters? Perhaps we should concentrate on the sentiment and value rather than dropping random literary boreholes in the hope of finding a source.

Holes by Louis Sachar (pronounced loo·ee sa·kuh) is a terrific book, by the way. I think Mark Twain might have liked it.

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About Tom Tolkien

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Tom Tolkien is a highly qualified (BA Hons, PGCE, QTS) children's literature expert and teacher with over 25 years of experience. He has led inset courses, developed curriculum materials, spoken at conferences, advised on longlisting for several international children's literature literature awards and written for educational publishers including contributing to a BETT award-nominated app. Social profiles: Twitter | Linkedin