Words, Words, Words

I like to think that yes, wisdom can be found at the bottom of a coffee cup — but perhaps not so much on the side of that mug. Check out the Op-Ed in The New York Times (“Falser Words Were Never Spoken”) on bogus quotations.

“IN a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

At least it said the words were Thoreau’s. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from “Walden”): “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.””

Thoreau needed to be more marketable, apparently. In the grand scheme of things, this is perhaps a minor offense, but I’m not the only one a little irked by the liberties taken with words that are produced ad infinitum on mugs and bumper stickers and Gandhi action figures … right?

“But ours is an era in which it’s believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.”

Words can stir the heart and inspire the mind. I’m in all in favor of spreading great ideas in various forms. I love quotations. But I hate bumper stickers. So I’m ambivalent on this one. Perhaps the most troubling implication is simply that misquotations certainly have a way of taking on a life of their own. See them repeated enough times, and collectively we’re more prone to those moments of not getting it quite right.

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Yes, it’s Wikipedia. But check out their list of famous misquotations anyway.

Bonus Trivia: Most misquoted film line of all time? “Luke, I am your father.” (Guardian: “Darth Vader ‘comment’ to Luke Skywalker is most misquoted film phrase”)

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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