Arts & Culture

They didn’t say it first

You can quote them

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is working on the second edition of his Yale Book of Quotations.

John Paul Chirdon

John Paul Chirdon

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More famous quotations are anonymous than you think.

We’re not referring here to the likes of “To be or not to be” or “Fourscore and seven years ago,” which have clear-cut original sources. But a startling number of quotations that once seemed to have straightforward points of origin now no longer do. With the continuing development of searchable online databases of historical books and periodicals over the past few decades, standard attributions for famous quotes have been proven wrong in great numbers—so many that well-researched quotation books are at risk of being devoted mostly to a huge author section called “Anonymous.”

Here are a few of the many examples:

“All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”
George Orwell made this statement famous in Animal Farm (1945). But in 1882 Ambrose Bierce had written, “All men are created equal. Some, it appears, are created a little more equal than others.”

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.”
This quip is universally ascribed to Senator Everett Dirksen (1896–1969), but in 1938 the New York Times printed: “Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.”

“All politics is local.”
This proverb is invariably sourced to Tip O’Neill, speaker of the US House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987; it’s the title of a book he coauthored. But it appeared in the Frederick, Maryland, Daily News on July 1, 1932. Moreover, the Washington Post had printed a similar formulation in 1905.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
John Lennon used this lyric in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” But Reader’s Digest in 1957 quoted Allen Saunders, creator of the comic strip Mary Worth, as saying, “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
The Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver used versions of this phrase and is known as its originator. But the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs presents earlier variants—back to one John R. Alltucker in the California Journal of Secondary Education, 1937.

“The buck stops here.”
Harry Truman is firmly associated with the expression, and beginning in 1945 he kept a sign inscribed with it on his desk. However, it has been documented in US Army usage back to 1939.

“Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
The usual attribution, to the famous football coach Vince Lombardi, is almost iconic by now. Yet UCLA football coach Red Sanders was quoted before Lombardi was. The Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1950, has him uttering, “Winning isn’t everything. Men, it’s the only thing!”

Are we doomed to vast “Anonymous” sections from now on? I’d argue that it’s useful for readers to be able to find their favorite quotes where they expect them. Therefore, in my book, I do list some quotations that are wrongly but strongly linked to a familiar person under that person’s name—with, of course, accurate explanatory annotation.

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