On the attribution of witticisms

It\’s fairly standard practice that over time good little phrases, sayings, witticisms, get attributed to the wrong people. As who actually said what to whom disappears into the mists of history it\’s as if there\’s a form of gravitational force attracting the attribution of this or that to just one or two historical figures.

Which figures it is depends on the country: Twain* never said many of the things that Americans attribute to him and even if he did, some of those were repetitions of points made by others.For us in the UK it seems to be Churchill.

It could have been either of them who originated the \”two certain things in life, death and taxes\” and it could have been one of myriads of other people**. I really don\’t know: but I would bet that a likely attribution in the US would be Twain, in the UK, Churchill. Similarly, I\’ve seen Disraeli\’s*** \”lies, damned lies and statistics\” attributed to both.

Which brings us to this:

In the words of the famous political theorist, JCR Clarkson

\”Socialism is such a crap system, it took a nation populated by Germans… and made it poor\”

He may have said it but the original is actually PJ O\’Rourke. Who himself, I\’m told, is actually the most quoted person in the modern dictionary of quotations. It is always acceptable to quote the Peej, on the basis that if you\’re going to nick jokes make sure you nick good ones.

But one should actually quote him….

* Twain obviously did say some very good things original to him. But more gets attributed than he actually said.

** Oscar Wilde is a very different case as he made a point of repeating others\’ quips.

*** Was it Dizzy?

11 thoughts on “On the attribution of witticisms”

  1. “Oscar Wilde is a very different case as he made a point of repeating others’ quips.”

    My favourite:

    Wilde – “I wish I’d said that.”
    Whistler – “You will Oscar, you will.”

  2. Philip Scott Thomas

    In the US, it tends to be Twain, Dorothy Parker or Lincoln.

    In the UK, it’s usually Churchill or Margot Asquith.

  3. Aren’t most of them actually F E Smith?

    My favourite:
    Judge: Are you trying to show contempt for this court?
    Smith: No, my Lord, I am attempting to conceal it.

  4. In my experience, if you don’t know who said something, as often as not the answer is George Bernard Shaw. e.g “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

  5. Americans also like to attribute to Mark Twain’s Pappy, to Ben Franklin and to The Good Book. My favourite is “As The Good Book says, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.””

  6. Who himself, I’m told, is actually the most quoted person in the modern dictionary of quotations.

    Which is astounding given only the very best of him is quoted. If you were going to lower the bar to that of other people who get quoted, every other line would be quotable.

  7. My favourite re. F.E. Smith concerns a written argument (what we would nowadays call a skeleton argument) he submitted to the High Court. In oral submissions to flesh it out he was told by the judge, “Mr Smith, I have read your argument and I am none the wiser”, to which Smith replied, “No, my lord, just infinitely better informed”

  8. Tim,

    The idea that Patrick O’ Rourke is the most quoted person in the world only brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s comment upon the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger, that satire is dead.

    Anyone seeking an alternative view of the wisdom of F.E. Smith is directed to G.K. Chesterton’s poem ‘Antichrist’.

  9. If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.
    —Dorothy Parker

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