Saturday, August 05, 2006

Misquotation and the Folk Process

I recently read a blog post about how annoying the author found it when people misquoted the Bible, specifically when they named "money" as the root of all evil, when (according to Timothy, the noted theological economist), it is actually "love of money" that is the culprit. This started me thinking... and, you should know, when I start to think I tend to get all bent out of shape, maybe because I find it so very difficult.

Anyhow, here 's what I think. I think that when people say things like "money is the root of all evil" there are a couple of things going on... and, oddly, I don't think that misquoting is necessarily one of those things.

I would argue that when people say "money is the root of all evil" they are not misquoting the Bible; they are, rather, correcting the Bible. Or, rather, since I would wager that most people have no idea of the source of the quote, still less what the "original" form was... that they are simply reiterating common wisdom and thereby agreeing with it. The folk process, in other words, has taken the quotation into the public domain. It no longer matters what Timothy said; what matters is the thing itself.

Now, the reason that Timothy's original sentiment is so often forgotten... is because the new saying - I dare say it - is superior. I would say that a much stronger case can be made for money per se as the root of all evil, than for mere love of money. (This is not to say that I think everything that results from money is evil... but boy, could I make a list.) Love is not an emotion that I would associate with money, personally, but I know people who do love money, and they're not more evil, as a rule, than, say, people who love dogs, or people who love the law.

Any linguist worth his salt will tell you that it's not really relevant what people are supposed to say. What counts is what people do say. Thus the absurdity of saying that "ain't ain't a word," or that it is somehow "incorrect usage" to end a sentence with a preposition. That is the sort of nonsense, as Winston Churchill famously remarked, up with which I will not put.

So-called "misquotations" abound in the world of spoken and written discourse, and pedants are forever getting worked up about what the "real" quotation should be. This is all well and good when the person supposes himself to be quoting - then the pedants correct misapprehensions, keep people honest, and generally are to be praised, if avoided on social occasions. (Okay, that was uncalled for. And untrue. Some of my best friends, etc... I include myself.)

However, very often - as I just argued in the case of that old devil money - it is the case that the folk process has improved on its source, and what was once a quotation becomes a saying. How can you misquote a saying, unless you twist it so that the words no longer make sense? So with casting money as villain. One of my personal favorites is "gilding the lily," which I find a much more evocative and useful image than what Shakespeare wrote, one character pointing out that it was, I suppose, pointless "to gild refined gold, to paint the lily." Not only is the phrase "gilding the lily" more compact than the original, falling more trippingly on the tongue... but its meaning has shifted and sharpened, so that it no longer signifies mere redundancy, but something closer to "spoiling by excess," something that I find needs summing up on a regular basis.

Another example... "Play it again, Sam," actually is a misquotation of the famous line from Casablanca, but surely the line is better misquoted? It may not have been what Bogart said... but it's what he meant, and absent the entire context, it actually sums up the emotions of the scene in a more complete and accurate way than the "correct" movie quotation - it's truer, in other words, to the spirit of the original. No wonder it beat out the original quotation in our hearts and minds. It deserves to.


There are doubtless other examples floating around in my head but I cannot think of them at the moment, as everything I and my wife and our two children own in the world must be boxed and ready for loading on a truck tomorrow morning. Yikes.


At 7:36 PM, Blogger MT said...

You misquoted or mis-referenced yourself. It doesn't detract, but I don't think anybody would say that fixing is "painting the lilly."

At 8:27 PM, Blogger MT said...

Oh: Completely agree with your post, BTW. Isn't that a boring remark? I guess I'd spin it a little more explicitly--as you probably would too in summary or on rewrite--and say "A saying isn't a quote." Some sayings are quotes and others are not and folks often make the distinction, as in the common (if pedantic) phrasing that an expression "derives" from Shakespeare or from the King James. I doubt this placates the religious folk though, who are so concerned about the spread of counterfeit gospel that they'd rather err on the safe side, even if it means rapping a few knuckles or bombing a few bookstores.

At 5:12 PM, Blogger Filch said...

Oh. I misquoted myself. Or something. Anyway, I fixed it, cause I can. Thank you, Murky.


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