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John Sutherland

SOUNDS FAMILIAR

The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture
By Gary Saul Morson (Yale University Press 352pp £20)

Academics like me are skilled users of turnitin.com. Never heard of it? Ask the nearest undergraduate and watch their cheek blanch. Turnitin is the trade's leading 'plagiarism detector'. You upload the student's essay or dissertation and it's checked against trillions of words and phrases in seconds. Irritatingly, however, Turnitin turns in a lot of zombie quotes. Say, for example, a student opens an essay thus:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Dickens, well aware that he lived in neither the best nor the worst of times, was more tolerant than his Vanityfairean rival of 'great men'. For Thackeray no man was a hero to his valet.

The detector is quite likely to claim six hits here. Should the conscientious student have appended footnotes citing Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Ecclesiastes, John Bunyan, Carlyle, Goethe?

We think of our use of language as 'fluency'. There are, however, congealed lumps floating in it and, if we look beneath the surface, often more lumps than liquidity. Put another way, most language is pre-owned. The previous owners are, as Gary Morson instructs us, often worth knowing about. Take, for example (not one of Morson's examples), the indisputably most famous and quoted line in English literature, 'To be, or not to be, that is the question'.

Most theatregoers would think the sentence spit new. But should they also go to a performance of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus they would hear the following in the hero's magnificent opening soliloquy, in which he resolves to sell his soul: 'Bid Oncaymæon farewell, Galen come'. The Greek Oncaymæon transliterates as 'being and not being'. Where is Faustus a professor of philosophy? The University of Wittenberg. Where is Hamlet a student of philosophy? The University of - you guessed it. 'To be or not to be' is not a deeply original thought but a hackneyed sophomoric seminar topic. Hamlet is not thinking, he's quoting.

Morson's book is full of surprises on the baggage phraseology carries. I read Philip Howard's 'Weasel Words' column for years in The Times and vaguely assumed the term originated with him. Not so. As Morson points out:

very few, I think, are aware that the term was put in currency by Theodore Roosevelt, who explained it as alluding to a specific practice of weasels: 'One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called "weasel words". When a weasel sucks eggs the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a "weasel word" after another, there is nothing left of the other.'

What's interesting, as Morson points out, is that Roosevelt defines the word differently from us. Weasel words, Roosevelt says, do to language what Dracula does to young ladies (as, for example, in 'genuine antique'). They do not deceive or mislead; they drain words of their proper meaning, leaving only a husk behind.

Morson is formidably knowledgeable about the various genera of quotation. With Linnaean neatness he differentiates maxims, aphorisms, apophthegms (that spelling-bee nightmare), idioms, clichés, hackneyed expressions, sententiae, buzzwords, proverbs, sayings, saws, platitudes, epigrams, truisms, pensées. He is not averse himself to coining technical terms yet to break the spell-check barrier: 'quotationality', 'misextraction', 'decontextualisation'. But the pleasure in the book comes from its essayistic rambles around the subject, the witty illustrations, and the enjoyment that the author clearly takes in what he's doing.

The overall tone is indulgent and commonsensical. Morson's severities are reserved for those who would themselves be severe. Who was it who said 'Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country'? The answer will, universally, be the thirty-fifth president of the US. Only a pedant would 'dequote' JFK by ascribing it to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr as the original begetter. The wonderful imperative would collapse like a punctured balloon without Kennedy's breath in it.

It may well be that Garbo never said 'I want to be alone' but 'I want to be left alone', but the misquotation, Morson argues, has been validated by usage and should be accepted as the real thing. Morson is particularly interesting on one of Churchill's most repeated quotes: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.' In his address to the House, on 13 May 1940, what the PM actually said was 'blood, toil, tears, and sweat.' But Winnie, never one to let a good Churchillism go to waste, came to like the common misquotation and - as the war progressed - used it himself. To make heavy weather of that slippage would be as perverse, Morson rightly says, as to ask the rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears to change their name.

While on the subject of rock, if you asked Keith, Mick, Ronnie or Charlie where they came by their name the answer would be Muddy Waters and his song, 'Rollin' Stone', with its refrain:

Well, my mother told my father,

Just before hmmm, I was born,

'I got a boy child's comin,

He's gonna be, he's gonna be a rollin stone'.

Of course, as Mr Turnitin will inform you, the proverb 'a rolling stone gathers no moss' is first found in Erasmus's Adagia in the fifteenth century. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. And if you're being pedantic, that quotation should not, as it everywhere is, be ascribed to Clark Gable or Rhett Butler (or even Margaret Mitchell), but to Sidney Howard, who wrote the script for the film of Gone with the Wind. Say it again, I don't give a damn and neither does Gary Morson for such pernicketiness. And, of course, Bogart playing Rick (or the scriptwriter of Casablanca) never said 'play it again, Sam' but 'play it, Sam'. So it goes. (I'm fairly certain that originates with Kurt Vonnegut - or was it Billy Joel?) Pascal's observation about the nose of Cleopatra was, originally, that if it had been 'an inch shorter' the history of the world would be different. But in an age when the nose job is very rarely a Pinocchio-style extension, the currently favoured misquotation ('an inch longer') should be let by without owlish correction.

Voltaire did not apparently say 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'. As Morson says, 'the statement belongs to a biographer of Voltaire'. It is what he would have said - utterly Voltairean, but not ipsissima verba. Which brings us to Johann Hari. A few weeks ago the Independent's young columnist was subjected to death by a thousand tweets for, effectively, photoshopping his interviews with better versions of what his interviewees had said, or as he argued, had meant to say.

Hari could have found useful support from The Words of Others where Morson quotes (approvingly) from Raymond Gorden's textbook for journalism students, Basic Interviewing Skills, where he instructs that 'whether [the text] must be in the exact words of the respondent or whether it can be paraphrased depends on the precise objectives of the interview' (my italics). You can bend the phraseology if your objective is to convey the essence of what your subject is saying. Presumably generations of Professor Gorden's students have entered the profession with the same kind of flexibilities regarding accurate quotations that Hari claims.

Hari is not the only person who will find succour in Morson's book. I was well enough disposed before I came to page 137. On that page I discovered that Morson had gone to some length to exculpate me from an alleged misquotation (as if I would). What an excellent book this is, I concluded. If Professor Morson wants a quote for the back cover of the paperback, I'm his man.


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John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus at UCL.