Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Coins Rubbed Smooth by Circulation

Louis Menand ponders on quotable quotes:
Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in “Casablanca” says “Play it again, Sam”; Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. [. . .]

Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. “Nice guys finish last” profits by its association with a man whose nickname was the Lip, even if the Lip never said it [. . .]

The adaptive mechanism benefits both parties. The survival of the quotation helps insure the survival of the person to whom it is misattributed. [. . .]

Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It’s quotable because it’s been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority. Quotations are prostheses. “As Emerson/Churchill/Donald Trump once observed” borrows another person’s brain waves and puts them to your own use. [. . .]

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