Another bit of detective work for the readers.

Searching for the source of one misattributed quotation, we find that there are many misattributed quotations on the Internet. Errors on the Internet! Who would have thought it was possible?

But to say that there are many is to speak with a delicate understatement. The Internet is awash in spurious quotations, which slosh from one collection of quotations to another without ever being questioned—even when the attributions are risibly unlikely. In fact, as a provisional measure, it would probably be safe to add the word “not” in front of the attribution of any circulating Internet quotation you come across—especially if it is set in snazzy type, attached to an inspiring picture, and circulated ad nauseam on Facebook.

The problem predates the Internet, of course. In the churchyard of Old St. Luke’s, a congregation of the French and Indian War era south of Pittsburgh, there is a stone with a curious epitaph:

This world’s a farce,
And all things show it;
I once thought so,
But now I know it.

Local tradition says that it comes from The Beggar’s Opera; but it is easy to see that it does not appear there, at least in the readily accessible versions of Gay’s play. But where did it come from? Google Books finds several references to this particular grave (including some that discuss the fascinating technology used to read the otherwise illegible inscription), but really only one independent use of the whole quotation. It is in the correspondence of Robert Burns and Mrs. Dunlop, in which Mrs. Dunlop quotes a version of the lines as from Gay, but does not cite an individual work. We must conclude, therefore, that (since John Gay is a well-known poet whose works are readily available) Mrs. Dunlop was mistaken, and the lines do not come from Gay at all.

The Internet ought to make it much easier to research the provenance of a quotation; but apparently the Internet also makes us lazier. And that brings us to our assignment for tonight.

Here is a page from “Curated Quotes,” a site where the lists of quotations are supposed to be, in a word, curated:

The 100 Most Famous Quotable Quotes of All Time

The curator describes his methodology, which is sound enough for determining which quotations are most in demand right now. What is very interesting, though, is that he actually made an attempt to weed out spurious quotations, because, as he points out, “Many famous quotes have uncertain origins.” It is very interesting because Dr. Boli believes that a very large number of the quotations on his list are spurious.

Your mission is to go through the list and use your keen literary instinct (an ability for which Dr. Boli’s readers are famous throughout the Internet) to decide which quotations on this list are likely to be spurious. For extra credit, show your work. If you can find the quotation only in lists of famous quotations, and never find a citation of the original work, you can be almost certain that it is spurious.

Dr. Boli will start. This quotation is almost certainly not from Mark Twain:

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

It does not show up anywhere in Google Books except in recent publications, always attributed to Mark Twain without citing a particular work. One book footnotes the source as “”

And another:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

It’s attributed to Albert Einstein on this page. In this case, Wikiquote editors have helpfully done our research for us: “This quote and variants including ‘The definition of insanity…’ or ‘One definition of…’ have been attributed to Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Confucius, and an old Chinese proverb, but this [the book Narcotics Anonymous, 1981] is its first known appearance in print.”

More almost certainly spurious quotations:

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. [Not Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company. [Not Mark Twain.]

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were. [Not Kahlil Gibran.]

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. [Not Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75. [Not Benjamin Franklin.]

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. [Not Plato.]

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. [Not Mark Twain.]

Whatever you are, be a good one. [Abraham Lincoln? Really? Dr. Boli wonders whether that attribution might be a little joke tossed in by the curator to see whether anyone is paying attention.]

All right—with very little work, we have disposed of 10% of the list. And here Dr. Boli stops, because he wants to leave his readers something to do. But he makes a prediction: Probably at least a quarter of the quotations on the list will be found to be spurious; and, of the quotations attributed to authors who lived more than a century ago, probably more than half will be spurious.

Once you have found a few spurious quotations, by the way, you could do the author of the list a great favor by communicating your findings to him.


  1. That first quote about life doesn’t sound remotely like Twain. It’s way too optimistic.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Clearly Dr. Boli did not misplace his trust in his readers’ literary instincts. It is worth noting, by the way, that when Dr. Boli himself went through the list, not a single one of the quotations his own instinct picked as implausible turned out to be correctly cited. That suggests, first, that his assignment for readers is an easy one; and, second, that there are many more spurious quotations to be discovered, since Dr. Boli examined only part of the list.

  2. antiplanner says:

    A good book on this subject is Ralph Keyes’ Nice Guys Finish Seventh. This book shows how quotes get attributed to the wrong people, a process Keyes calls the “Immutable Law of Misquotation: Misquotes drive out real quotes.” Basically, a funny quote is funnier if Mark Twain said it; a profound quote is more profound if Winston Churchill said it; etc.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Some graduate student could probably make a good doctoral thesis by analyzing the patterns of misattribution. Proverbs or quotations that sound cynical and sardonic go to Mark Twain (although Mark Twain’s reputation is such that he has become the Great Eater of Quotes, regardless of their content); if they are serious and inspirational, they go to Ralph Waldo Emerson; if they are paradoxical, they go to G. K. Chesterton; if they seem concerned with the nature of the universe, they go to Albert Einstein; if they are nothing but new-age fluff, they go to Kahlil Gibran. To beef up the thesis, one could then trace successive misattributions: for example, first to Samuel Johnson, then to Washington Irving; or first to Mark Twain, and then to Groucho Marx. One might not ultimately learn anything useful from the study, but it ought to impress one’s academic colleagues.

      • FrHorton says:

        It amazes me how many pop-psych happy quotes have found their way to Mark Twain, by what bizarre process I cannot imagine.

  3. FrHorton says:

    Do misquotes count? “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” is correctly attributed to Lord Acton, except what he actually said is, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

  4. markm says:

    Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.
    – misquoted from Irene L. Luce.

    I suspected that because I recalled that line (perhaps with “beautiful” rather than “good-looking”), as being the most memorable moment of John Derek’s entire acting career. (Derek is better known for his later career as a dirty old man. That is, he married three of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and sold their nude photos.)

    Derek said that in the 1949 film “Knock on Any Door”. It came from Willard Motley’s 1947 novel of the same name, and Wikipedia quotes the book and film as, “I want to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.”

    So where did Irene L. Luce come in? Motley borrowed from earlier sources, which paraphrased one of her letters:

    This investigator discovered “live fast and die fast” in 1855 and “live fast and die young” in 1870. Mrs. Luce added “corpse” decades later. Letters by Mrs. Luce to her husband were used by him in a successful divorce case in 1920. A newspaper quoted one letter as, “I intend to live a fast life, die young and be a beautiful corpse.” That was soon paraphrased in many other places, with “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” becoming the most common version by 1924. Motley might have been the first to substitute “beautiful”, if he actually did. Sources differ as to which word was used in his book and the film, and I am not going to spend more time trying to find either of them.

    IMHO, as a context-free saying, “beautiful” is a better word choice, but the character who said this was a male thug, who would be more likely to describe himself as “good-looking” than as “beautiful”.

  5. Terri says:

    Greetings, Dr. Boli!

    I stumbled upon your website(s) today and am already obsessed. “If you have made it this far down, you are obviously a glutton for this sort of thing. Go ahead. Read another page.” Oh, a glutton I am! I thought I was the only one who spent much of my leisure in old Google Books, taking screen shots of the vintage images.

    Your humor is slaying me and your photographs are touching my artist’s soul — so beautiful! And you’ve caused me to stay up far past my bedtime, browsing.

    I am quite mortified to write to you because I am guilty of plaguing the internet with spurious quotations — nothing intentionally misattributed, though, simply the carelessness and ignorance of youth. However, as I am now reformed, I will boldly face you.

    I run a quotation website, The Quote Garden, and although in my younger days I collected many quotes without checking their sources, I am now insistent on accuracy and have been researching and correcting as I can find the time. I’ve been collecting for over 30 years and so it’s taking a while to get through it all, but I will get there.

    I’m writing not only to thank you for your wonderful sites but also to ask your permission to quote you on I would of course hyperlink your attribution to, and for those from a book, also link to its page on Amazon. I’d like to use “Go Fish” Einstein, “big hairy spiders” Roosevelt, a sentence or two from this article, your 2012 Patriot Day poem, and a few items from the Encyclopedia of Misinformation, which I will of course be ordering forthwith.

    If you are so kind as to grant my request, shall I attribute H. Albertus Boli, LL.D., his pseudonymous Mr. Bailey, or another attribution of your choosing?

    A million advance thanks for your consideration!

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