What They Didn’t Say

The ability to quote is highly prized among conversationalists. Recognizing and appropriately using a subtle reference to a movie, book, play, or historical figure identifies the individual as someone who is well-read and culturally aware. 

Very few people consciously memorize a text word-for-word. Instead, familiar cues and repetition implant the words in our minds – and not always correctly. 

Sometimes a quotation is repeated incorrectly so often that it eclipses the actual quotation in popular recognition. Check out these websites, which list some oft-misquoted lines from literature:

Why does it matter? you may be thinking. Sure, it’s funny, but who cares if the road is “less traveled” or “not taken”?1 Aside from losing the subtlety of the author’s deliberate word choice, the day-to-day consequences are not immediately apparent.

But think about it in terms of translation. Sometimes the difference between two words or the use of “it” instead of “he” produces humor. Calling oneself a “jelly donut”2 was not enough to wreak havoc in international politics. However, in other situations, the results have been potentially serious. In 2007, remarks by a Syrian diplomat were mistranslated (Syrian’s comment on bomb target mistranslated: UN), causing a rush of rumors about the situation.

One of my favorite quotations comes from the 2005 film The Interpreter with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. The exchange is as follows:

Tobin Keller: How do you feel about him? 
Silvia Broome: I don’t care for him. 
Tobin Keller: Wouldn’t mind if he were dead? 
Silvia Broome: I wouldn’t mind if he were gone. 
Tobin Keller: Same thing. 
Silvia Broome: No, it isn’t. If I interpreted gone as dead I’d be out of a job, if dead and gone were the same thing there’d be no UN.

The creation of quotes is similarly significant to writers concerned with journalistic integrity. How much can a writer “clean up” a source’s quote before it becomes tampering? (See this article from CBC in Canada for more examples and thoughts.) 

Whether in politics, journalism, or translation, the details of words and quotations have more impact than you might think. The problem begins on a conversational level, but the practice bleeds into areas of greater significance. 

Uncovering misquotes may be, on one hand, an amusing form of comeuppance for those who seek to prove their erudition in conversation, but it also serves as a reminder of just how powerful words – the right ones and the wrong ones – can be.


1. The title of Robert Frost’s poem is actually “The Road Not Taken,” but it is often mis-referenced as “The Road Less Traveled.” The consequence is a shift in tone from questioning remembrance to celebration of independence.
2. In a 1963 speech on a visit to West Berlin, John F. Kennedy attempted to call himself a Berliner, but by adding the article “ein” in German, he actually referred to himself as a “jelly donut.” This gaffe has become a well-known cultural reference point (see Time Magazine: Wall-To-Wall Kennedy).


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