Annals new and old are filled with quotations that most people can recognize. Reaching back, there are Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” and Brutus’ own “Sic semper tyrannis.” Preachers recall Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” A hymn quotes Francis as saying: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love…” To Voltaire is credited: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Poor Marie Antoinette labors under her “Let them eat cake.” Tediously over-quoted is Churchill’s jibe to Nancy Astor when she said that if he were her husband she would poison his drink: “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Along with that is his rather unchivalrous quip to Mrs. Braddock: “I may be drunk, Bessie, but you are ugly, and tomorrow I shall be sober.”
In our national lore, George Washington is quoted as speaking against “entangling alliances,” and Patrick Henry boldly declared: “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Actors recreate Paul Revere’s clarion cry from his horse: “The British are coming!” Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired many: “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” We smile at Mark Twain saying: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Soldiers were moved when General Pershing apostrophized: “Lafayette, we are here!” Charles E. Wilson was mocked for saying: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” Ginger Rogers boasted: “I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels,” and sportsmen take a motto from Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
To burst a few bubbles, though, those people never uttered those words. As the inimitable Yogi Berra explained, “I really didn’t say a lot of the things I said.” More problematic than misquoting, is cherry picking actual quotes out of context. Public figures, or their speechwriters, not infrequently affect familiarity with unfamiliar sources. President Kennedy paraphrased a line from Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, and his brother later quoted the same in a campaign speech: “You see things and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’ ” In the play, these fine sounding words in fact were spoken by the serpent in the Garden, fooling Eve.
Dreams may inspire visionaries, but fantasizing about illusions is how the Prince of Lies brought sin and death into the world. Jesus, on the other hand, said, “. . . The words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Saint John never misquotes the Master: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).