The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 


More Scorn

January 8, 2017

Before Christmas I featured some insults from Matthew Parris’s Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History. The put-downs were all from the world of politics. Here are some more from the rest of the book:

You could tell by his conversation which volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica he’d been reading. One day it would be Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath. Bertrand Russell on Aldous Huxley

They say Rothko killed himself because he met the people who bought his art. Adrian Searle

I don’t mind. I have gloves on. Mark Twain after running his hand over a Whistler painting, which caused the artist to exclaim: ‘Don’t touch that, Can’t you see, it isn’t dry yet.’

I had not realized that the Arabs were so musical. Sir Thomas Beecham on hearing that a concert by Malcolm Sargent in Tel Aviv had been interrupted by the sound of gunfire directed at the concert hall.

Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away. Sir Thomas Beecham

Frank Sinatra is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime … why did he have to come along in my lifetime? Bing Crosby

I always knew Frank would end up with a boy. Ava Gardner on Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow

If white bread could sing it would sing like Olivia Newton-John. Anonymous review

I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’. Bob Newhart

He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles. John Lennon, when asked whether Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world.

There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Paul Theroux on Bono

She was good at playing abstract confusion in the same way that a midget is good at being shortClive James on Marilyn Monroe

A whole family of women who take the faces they were born with as a light suggestion. Amy Schumer on the Kardashians

Jeremy Clarkson is like Marmite. Disgusting. Peter Serafinowicz

If name-dropping were an Olympic sport, Yentob would be suspected of doping. Henry Mance on Alan Yentob

The shit hits the fan. Headline suggested by Kenneth Tynan after Rex Harrison punched an autograph hunter

A bore is starred. Village Voice review of A Star is Born starring Barbra Streisand

Marie Osmond is so pure, not even Moses could part her knees. Joan Rivers

I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson. Ricky Gervais, introducing Gibson onstage at the Golden Globes

Monica Lewinsky has agreed to host a new Fox reality show called Mr. Personality. Lewinsky says this way, when people ask her the most degrading thing she’s ever done, she’ll have a new answer. Tina Fey

To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not just to climaxes but to prefixes. Roger Ebert on the end of The Village

No. Leonard Maltin’s complete review of Isn’t It Romantic?

This is great. When does it start? Groucho Marx, watching a cricket match at Lord’s

If defensive linemen’s IQs were 5 points lower, they’d be geraniums. Russ Francis on American football

Me and Jake LaMotta grew up in the same neighbourhood. You wanna know how popular Jake was? When he played hide and seek, nobody ever looked for LaMotta. Rocky Graziano

Anglers think they are divining some primeval natural force by outwitting a fish, a creature that never even got out of the evolutionary starting gate. Rich Hall

I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won. Muhammad Ali

Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair. Brian Clough

Do you think I would enter into a contract with that mob? Absolutely no chance. I would not sell them a virus. Sir Alex Ferguson, in December 2008, on the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Ronaldo was sold the following summer for £80m.

The definition of countryside is the murder of Piers Morgan. Stephen Fry

Of course they have, or I wouldn’t be talking to you. Barbara Cartland, when asked by BBC reporter Sandra Harris in a radio interview whether she thought English class barriers had broken down

She’s been married so many times she has rice marks on her face. Henry Youngman on Zsa Zsa Gabor


Scorn

December 11, 2016

Loyal readers will remember I am a big fan of put downs and have done a couple of posts: Famous put-downs and Famous put-downs #2. So, I was pleased to see that Matthew Parris has updated his book Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History for 2016. There are loads of put-downs for your delectation. Here is my selection:

 

Paddy Ashdown is the only party leader who’s a trained killer. Although, to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught. Charles Kennedy

Is there no beginning to your talents? Clive Anderson to Jeffrey Archer

It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier. Herbert Asquith at Andrew Bonar Law’s funeral

My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the army I should like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln  Abraham Lincoln to General McClellan, accused of inactivity in the American Civil War

He’s so dumb he couldn’t tip shit out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. Lyndon Johnson on Gerald Ford

Winston had devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches. F.E. Smith on Winston Churchill

A sheep in sheep’s clothing. Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee

I always think he looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it. Anna Soubry on Nigel Farage

A triumph of modern science – to find the only part of Randolph that wasn’t malignant and remove it. Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill after an operation

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened. Attlee got out. Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee.

A ‘semi house-trained polecat.  Michael Foot’s description of Norman Tebbit

How can one best summon up the exquisite, earnest tedium of the speech of Sir Geoffrey Howe in yesterday’s South African debate? It was rather like watching a much-loved family tortoise creeping over the lawn in search of a distant tomato. David McKie on Sir Geoffrey Howe

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life. Jeremy Thorpe after Harold Macmillan’s 1962 Cabinet reshuffle

Like being savaged by a dead sheep. Denis Healey, referring to the attack by Sir Geoffrey Howe on his Budget proposals, in the Listener

Attila the Hen. Clement Freud on Margaret Thatcher

With Tony you have to take the smooth with the smooth. Anonymous senior Labour politician on his leader

I wouldn’t vote for Ken Livingstone if he were running for mayor of Toytown. Arthur Scargill

No one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac? Barack Obama on producing his certificate, whose authenticity Donald Trump had publicly called into doubt

If you only read one thing this year … then you’re probably the kind of person who’ll enjoy this. Amazon review of Nigel Farage’s The Purple Revolution

The prigs who attack Jeffrey Archer should bear in mind that we all, to some extent, reinvent ourselves. Jeffrey has just gone to a bit more trouble. Barry Humphries

My advice is quit while you’re behind. Tony Blair to William Hague

He has something of the night about him. Tory MP Ann Widdecombe on her former boss and Home Secretary Michael Howard, 1997

All the attributes of a populist except popularity. Bruce Anderson on Michael Howard

Ed Miliband is like a plastic bag caught in a tree. No one knows how he got up there and no one can be bothered to get him down. Bill Bailey

The Grand Hernia himself, Nigel Farage. Camilla Long

I have read that there are some people – probably the type who are thinking of defecting to Ukip – who present themselves at A&E with barely credible injuries sustained through vacuum cleaner abuse. Boris Johnson

Cecil Parkinson, you’re director of a fertilizer company. How deep is the mess you’re in? Jeremy Paxman’s first question to former Conservative party chairman on the BBC’s 1997 General Election results programme

He has the face of a man who clubs baby seals. Denis Healey on John Prescott

An enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion. Will Self on Boris Johnson

Reader, suppose you were an idiot; and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself. Mark Twain

Satire died the day they gave Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. There were no jokes left after that. Tom Lehrer

It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training. Christopher Hitchens on Barack Obama’s campaign slogan of ‘Yes we can’

They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge. Thomas Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives on members of Congress

 Arianna Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision. Donald Trump

 Calling Jeffrey Archer’s fictional characters cardboard is an insult to the British packaging industry. Peter Preston


The outrageous Ann Coulter

October 9, 2016

Ann Hart Coulter, who was born on December 8, 1961, is an American conservative social and political commentator, bestselling author and newspaper columnist. Her books have titles such as How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans, and Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole. This last book is said to have inspired Donald Trump’s immigration policy. In fact, she makes Trump appear moderate. Recently I came across this quote:

I don’t care if Donald Trump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper.

I thought that I would include a selection of her outrageous quotes:

There’s a cultural acceptance of child rape in Latino culture that doesn’t exist in even the most dysfunctional American ghettos. When it comes to child rape, the whole family gets involved.

If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream. It’s a personal fantasy of mine.

I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantanamo.”

Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims — at least all terrorists capable of assembling a murderous plot against America that leaves 7,000 people dead in under two hours.

Linda Vester: You say you’d rather not talk to liberals at all?

Coulter: I think a baseball bat is the most effective way these days.

Liberal soccer moms are precisely as likely to receive anthrax in the mail as to develop a capacity for linear thinking.

 We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.

 My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.”

 God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'”

 I would like evolution to join the roster of other discredited religions, like the Cargo Cult of the South Pacific. Practitioners of Cargo Cult believed that manufactured products were created by ancestral spirits, and if they imitated what they had seen the white man do, they could cause airplanes to appear out of the sky, bringing valuable cargo like radios and TVs. So they constructed “airport towers” out of bamboo and “headphones” out of coconuts and waited for the airplanes to come with the cargo. It may sound silly, but in defense of the Cargo Cult, they did not wait as long for evidence supporting their theory as the Darwinists have waited for evidence supporting theirs.

We just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.

I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others. On the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller

Where are the Bernie supporters tonight? Did Hillary have them gassed?

I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump’s immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given.

Here she is in action. I love the bit where she talks about Trump’s “love and respect for women”:


To all the puns I’ve loved before

March 6, 2016

Here is a selection of puns I found while researching this post. Some are old friends, others are new.

Mae West

A hard man… is good to find

Good sex is like good Bridge… If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand

I’m the lady who works at Paramount all day… and Fox all night.

I used to be Snow White… but I drifted

Dorothy Parker

What’s the difference between an enzyme and a hormone? You can’t hear an enzyme.

You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me  than a frontal lobotomy.

Benjamin Franklin

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.

A Night at the Opera

Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?

Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.

Chico: Well, I don’t know…

Groucho: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.

Chico: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Santy Claus.

Oscar Wilde

Immanuel doesn’t pun; he Kant.

The Bellamy Brothers

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?

Jon Stewart

I don’t approve of political jokes; I have seen too many of them get elected.

Carry on Cleo

Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!

Anonymous

My battery had an alkaline problem, so it went to AA meetings

I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.

Being in politics is like playing golf: you’re trapped in one bad lie after another.

The soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.

When you’ve seen one shopping center, you’ve seen a mall.

I brought some cocaine from Limerick, but I was annoyed that the third and fourth lines were shorter than the others.

Bakers, eh? They’re so kneady!


Some quotes from Other People’s Money

February 7, 2016

In Other People’s Money John Kay has included some brilliant quotes. Here is my selection of some of the best:

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It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. Upton Sinclair

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A British bank is run with precision

A British home requires nothing less

Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools.

Without them: disorder, catastrophe, anarchy

In short, you have a ghastly mess.

Mary Poppins, Walt Disney production

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 I would like to pay tribute to the contribution you and your company make to the prosperity of Britain. During its one-hundred-and-fifty-year history, Lehman Brothers has always been an innovator, financing new ideas and inventions before many others even begin to realise their potential. Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, with Dick Fuld, opening Lehman Brothers’ new London headquarters, 5 April 2004

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No sooner did you pass the fake fireplace than you heard an ungodly roar, like the roar of a mob … It was the sound of well-educated young white men baying for money on the bond market. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

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When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results. Warren Buffett, 2008, on the global financial crisis

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We are investment bankers. We don’t care what happens in five years. Vincent Dahinden, head of global structured products, Royal Bank of Scotland, in Institutional Investor, 12 February 2004. Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out by the UK taxpayer four years, eight months later.

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Lucky fools do not bear the slightest suspicion that they may be lucky fools. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

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Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one. Bertolt Brecht, Happy End

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I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the Pope or .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody. James Carville, Clinton policy adviser

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Just going after the company is also both technically and morally suspect. It is technically suspect because, under the law, you should not indict or threaten to indict a company unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that some managerial agent of the company committed the alleged crime; and if you can prove that, why not indict the manager? And from a moral standpoint, punishing a company and its many innocent employees and shareholders for the crimes committed by some unprosecuted individuals seems contrary to elementary notions of moral responsibility. Jed Rakoff, former federal judge for the South District of New York

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C. LEVIN (D, MICHIGAN): When you heard that your employees in these emails and looking at these deals said ‘God, what a shitty deal’, ‘God, what a piece of crap’, when you hear your own employees or read about these in emails, do you feel anything?

MR D.A.VINIAR (CFO, GOLDMAN SACHS): I think that is very unfortunate to have on email.

US Senate, permanent subcommittee on investigations, 27 April 2010

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Quotes of 2014

January 4, 2015

Here is my selection of quotes from last year.

I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi (Germany’s) war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’ …I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. Venture capitalist Tom Perkins

It took me six hours and 15 minutes in the car to get here. It should have taken three and a half to four. That has nothing to do with professionalism. What it does have to do with is a population that is going through the roof chiefly because of open-door immigration and the fact that the M4 is not as navigable as it used to be. Ukip leader Nigel Farage explaining why he was two hours late for the party’s first Welsh conference in Port Talbot.

Who wants to see that again, really? A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money. Sir Mick Jagger, 71, on the Monty Python reunion concerts at the O2.

I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent. At that moment I hit my face against the player, leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth. Luis Suarez

I can’t breathe!  Eric Garner

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling

He has such a good body and he has really, really good legs. Butt… And he is slim, tall, and good skin, Pierce blue eyes which I love.. Love his eyes. Also I love his power on the stage.  Wendi Deng, former wife of Rupert Murdoch describing Tony Blair.

We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and co-parent, we will be able to continue in the same manner. Gwyneth Paltrow.

You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years, I’ve been in the Cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?  David Mellor.

I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights. Emma Watson

The first time I went to Wales I thought I’d landed in a land of hobbits. Everybody was really small and the houses were small and the writing was backwards. David Hasselhoff.

I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet. Monica Lewinsky

When a typhoon hits the Philippines or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come. President Barack Obama

The Man Who Hated Britain. The Daily Mail launches a surprise attack on the late Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader, Ed.

If he is right and I am afraid it is because I don’t fail many times. Eight years without silverware, that’s failure. He is a specialist in failure. Jose Mourinho attacking  Arsene Wenger