Maureen Dowd's Astonishing Feats of Verbal Memory

Language Log is extremely skeptical that Maureen Dowd accidentally remembered a verbatim quote from Josh Marshall:


Let's try a little (thought) experiment in verbal short-term memory. First, find a friend. Then, find a reasonably complex sentence about 45 words long, expressing a cogent and interesting point about an important issue -- say this one from a story in today's New York Times: "But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn."

Now call your friend up on the phone, and have a discussion about the topic of the article. In the course of this conversation, slip in a verbatim performance of the selected sentence. Then ask your friend to write an essay on the topic of the discussion. (OK, this is a thought experiment, right?)

How likely is it that the selected sentence will find its way, word for word, into your friend's essay?

Actually, there's a prior question, which is whether your friend will have stopped the conversation to ask why you're suddenly talking in such a writerly way.

If she did, she's wasted as a columnist; she ought to have her own mentalist act.

What's weird is that the truth is presumably more believable than what she said. It's not like Maureen Dowd has a history of plagiarism, or that it's very likely she thought a verbatim lift would go unnoticed. What probably happened is that her assistant found the quote for her, and the attribution got lost, or a friend emailed it to her and forgot to mention it was a direct lift. All writers get ideas and funny turns of phrase from their non-writer friends, though most of us notify the friends before we steal them. But the explanation she gave makes no sense, and makes people think she's hiding something.