'Beam Us Up, Mr. Scott!': Why Misquotations Catch On

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How sayings from books, movies, and speeches get misremembered

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Warner Bros.

"Misquotations are often stickier than actual quotes," Abraham Lincoln once joked. He didn't really, of course—but he'd be a great spokesperson of the sentiment, given how often his words have been misremembered, miscast, passed down from person to person in a way that little resembles any of his actual statements. (Actually, Mark Twain would be a better candidate for that one. Didn't he say basically everything?)

In the world of speeches and orations, especially historical ones, the persistent misquotation is understandable. You hear a speech. You misremember or mishear a line as something more colorful than it was. If you're a journalist—especially in the pre-recording age, when all notes were taken by hand—you might then type that mis-remembrance into an article. Multiple versions circulate. And so on.

But in the modern age, where basically everything is track-downable, what's our excuse? Why do misquotes arise—and why are they so persistent and hard to eradicate?

The persistence part is simple, especially with the rise of the Internet. It has become far easier to share—and incorrect information is just as sharable as valid information. The more something is shared, the more hits it gets, the more difficult it becomes to verify, and so forth. It becomes easier to just quote and hope for the best. But why do we misquote in the first place?

Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There's a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

In some cases, it's a simple question of word order. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" has an easier rhythm than the actual, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The change certainly matters if you're a poet, or preserving the integrity of Shakespeare. But at least it does no real harm to the meaning.

In some, it's a simplification or contraction of something that's a bit messier to remember without it. "Beam me up, Scotty!" was never actually uttered by any Star Trek character. "Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" was, in the 1968 "Gamesters of Triskelion." Likewise, Humphrey Bogart's iconic "Play it again, Sam" was in reality, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it." Note how in both cases, the sense remains basically the same. The adjustments are minor ones. They aren't blatant misquotations so much as attempts to, on some level, make things sound the way they should sound. These misquotes are in the category of, "right, that's what I wanted to say—and maybe even how I wanted to say it."

There are, of course, simplifications that are more perfidious and sneaky. The famous "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," for one, diverges in just one tiny way from Lord Acton's original phrasing: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Modifiers like "should" aren't as pretty—or as striking—as absolutes. Rhetorically, the first one surely sounds better (hence, our enhanced memory of it and taste for its correctness). But the gulf between it and the real thing is vast. What one little word can do. (Here's another example: The line from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" that is often quoted as "Theirs but to do or die" is instead "theirs but to do and die." That 'and' might be small, but it makes all the difference.)

The last misquotation type in the "more fluent" category is the most blatant. It actually reworks to a great extent the original line, usually by shortening or simplifying it—and while the result is doubtless superior from a purely oratorical perspective (as in, it sounds more dramatic and is more likely to lodge itself in your mind), it also departs to an alarming extent from the original. Take the oft-quoted Thomas Carlyle gem, from his life of Frederick the Great: "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains." Isn't that nice? A simple, strong definition. Except, Carlyle wrote, "The good plan itself, this comes not of its own accord; it is the fruit of genius (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all)." Not quite the same thing, is it? (But just try to bring the real monster of a phrase to mind when you need a good quote to drive a point home.)

It's not too far from that elaborate paraphrasing to, more literally, putting words into the mouths of unsuspecting quote victims. Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" would be one of the most famous lines in history were it not for the fact that she never actually said it. The line comes instead from Book 6 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, written several years before Marie Antoinette ever came to Versailles—and its speaker is never actually named but rather referred to as a "great princess." (Oh, and it's not cake; it's brioche.)

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Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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