Famous quotes may be apocryphal yet illuminating

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It is part of every Christmas quiz: the “Who said it?” round, which challenges contestants to put a speaker’s name to a famous quotation. But who didn’t say it? “Play it again, Sam” is known as the line that Humphrey Bogart made famous, but his character in Casablanca did not actually say those words at all. It is the film’s most memorable moment, but it is nowhere in the script.

Many apocryphal quotes like that one represent posterity’s polish on what was actually said. If Warner Brothers’ scriptwriters could have rewound the clock, they surely would have had Bogart actually say the phantom line that generations of movie-goers imagine themselves to have heard on his lips.

Issac Newton did not say, after suffering severe financial losses in the South Sea bubble: “I can predict the movement of heavenly bodies but not the madness of crowds.” But he did muse in that vein on the differences between physics and psychology.

Sometimes, however, posterity changes the meaning. Hartley Shawcross, law officer in the Labour government that unexpectedly secured a great victory in 1945, famously proclaimed in the House of Commons: “We are the masters now!” Except he did not. What he actually said was: “We are the masters at the moment.” It is a linguistic nuance which conveys an entirely different impression.

It is usually impossible to be certain that someone never said what is posthumously attributed. Rick, the character played by Bogart, is a rare exception: his fictional life lasted only 90 minutes, and we know every word he uttered in the course of it.

No one has yet tracked down a source for the reported words of Aneurin Bevan, Shawcross’s colleague and founder of Britain’s National Health Service: “The sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar Hospital will reverberate round the Palace of Westminster.”

But the remark encapsulates the problem of reconciling central control with individual accountability — an issue that has bedevilled the health service ever since. The words authentically capture the tone of Bevan’s Welsh rhetoric. Perhaps he did say them. Or are they the fabrication of some malicious critic?

Sometimes posterity forgets the context. Adam Smith did describe how a merchant might be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention”. But the remark was not the eulogy to untrammelled free markets attributed to him by modern libertarians.

In fact, Smith was explaining that protectionism was often unnecessary because consumers and traders so often preferred to buy goods made in their home country rather than importing them.

John Maynard Keynes had such facility with words, and such exuberant knowledge and intellect, that he is a prolific source of apocryphal quotations. His famous “when the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” wins ever wider circulation, although it is not a particularly profound sentiment. “Markets can stay wrong for longer than you can stay solvent” is more shrewd. But no one has identified an occasion on which Keynes said either of these things.

And there is no evidence that Albert Einstein described compound interest as “the most powerful force in the universe”. Indeed, it seems unlikely that he ever did. Like Newton, his skills with money fell some way short of his abilities as a physicist, and, due in part to his complex personal life, his finances never had much opportunity to benefit from compound interest. Goethe, however, really did write (a century or so before Einstein wrote down the mathematical equations that explain much of what happens in the universe) that “double entry bookkeeping is among the finest inventions of the human mind”.

And yet it does not really matter whether the historic figures concerned said these things or not, although the wonderful Quote Investigator website seeks the original version of many widely used aphorisms. Were the dying words of King George V, “How is the Empire?” as his private secretary reported, or “Bugger Bognor,” as popular culture prefers?

Even if Keynes’s last words were not regret “at not having drunk enough champagne”, the story tells us something true about the man.

Well chosen phrases gain currency not by virtue of their provenance, but because they meet the (accurately quoted) requirements of Alexander Pope: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d”.

 

This article was first published in the Financial Times on December 30th, 2015.

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