Friday, October 21, 2005

On Quotes and Misquotes

"Quotation, n.: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another."
-- Ambrose Bierce from The Devil's Dictionary

A few weeks ago, I added the "Random Quote" section to the right side of this page. Ever since, I have been looking for new quotes to add to my list. Recently, I stumbled upon this one:
Proof by induction is not as prevalent as proof by intimidation.
-- Austin Train
I like that. It neatly captures what many of us experience every day. In supposedly rational debates, power often trumps reason.

Before adding this quote to my list I decided I should at least answer one question. Who is Austin Train? Google provided the answer. He is a fictional character in The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Although I am reluctant to quote the words of a fictional character, I decided to take it a step further. I used to Search Inside the book for the above quote. Guess what? The fictional Austin Train apparently never said those words.

The point is a quotation is a dicey proposition. One of my favorite sources is the often bizarre, always deadpan comedian Steven Wright. There are many lists of Steven Wright jokes on the Internet, but I remember reading once that Steven Wright himself denies making some of the jokes. So while I am 99% certain Steven Wright is a real person, I can't guarantee he said everything you might see under "Random Quote". I can only say I wouldn't knowingly misquote anyone.

This of course is a symptom of a general phenomenon. We have more information readily available to us than ever before. The trouble is half of it is wrong. So enjoy the quotes, but don't believe everything you read.

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