QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.
— Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911)
Most people have some sort of a niche interest… I’ve always been a bit of a quotations aficionado (quote-phile?). You can imagine how excited I was when we first got internet at home in the 90s and I discovered the The Quote Garden. Of course, on occassion I’ve had the nagging fear that perhaps Oscar Wilde was right in saying: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (De Profundis, 1897). But I think some of us don’t love quotations for the lack of original thoughts… rather, these small bits of thoughts offered by others intrigue us and get our imaginations running. Or at least that’s how I comfort myself.
However, as a caveat to my passion for collecting the words of others, whenever I find a phrase that catches my fancy– I always have to track down the source. Call it my editor’s instinct, but I shudder at the words “Source: Unknown”. Fortunately, most quotes I encounter have sources. Unfortunately, they’re often mangled and misattributed versions of their original self. These insidious frankenstein quotes aren’t just on Facebook groups, Tumblr pages and other bedazzled corners of the web. They’re everywhere. Recently, I was reading a (legit, serious) book which had a great quote from a Rumi poem, and since I can read Persian, I decided to track down the poem in Rumi’s original texts. I tried every permutation and absolutely could not track a legitimate textual source in Persian… or any other language including English! (I’d missed that Rumi’s a cultural meme now…)
During this little adventure I stumbled on what is my favorite recent discovery on the internet these days– Garson O’Toole’s blog “Quote Investigator”. A real entertaining rabbit hole, the blog takes a disputed quote, then methodically unravels the histories and the people to whom the quote has been attributed– then BAM! concludes with the most likely source for the quotation. This site has given me hope that there is end in sight to the travesty of quote misattribution, but has also opened my eyes to a whole history behind some of my favorite words from the past.Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi