You May Misquote Me

Recently, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published letters from readers citing the same familiar expression. Unfortunately, both readers – and the editors of these two distinguished newspapers – got it wrong.

The Times letter offered this version: “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that just ain’t so.” The writer credited Satchel Paige. In fact, this witticism was crafted by Josh Billings in 1874 – three decades before Paige was born. (”The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.”)

This is surely one of the most frequently misquoted and misattributed aphorisms. I have a file of clips with numerous variations. Among those erroneously credited are Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Artemus Ward.

The irony is perfect. Because so many people are mistakenly certain that they have it right, the quotation proves its own point!

The words “As so-and-so said…” are often a prelude to an error. Examples:

  • “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum? He never said it. Some historians credit Joseph Bessimer, a late 19th century con man, while others attribute it to David Hannum, a showman who was a rival of Barnum.
  • “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though commonly attributed to Voltaire, and consistent with his beliefs, this stirring declaration has never been found in his writings. The myth arose from an ambiguous and misinterpreted passage in a biography.
  • “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This was a popular expression five centuries before Isaac Newton said it.
  • A particularly fertile area for these errors is technology predictions. “Everything that can be invented has been invented” wasn’t uttered by a 19th-century patent commissioner. IBM founder Thomas Watson didn’t forecast “a worldwide market for maybe five computers.” And Bill Gates never scoffed that “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

Don’t fall for these quotation myths, or others like them, and don’t repeat them in your writing, presentations, or conversation. Two reliable books that set the record straight are The Quote Verifier

by Ralph Keyes and They Never Said It by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George. Be especially careful online. Numerous reference sites routinely misquote and misattribute. One you can trust is quotation guru Mardy Grothe’s:

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.