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Misquotations: He-Said-She-Said Friction


There's a game that perhaps you played in primary school or at summer camp called “Telephone.” The instructor gives one child a phrase (or the child conjures one up herself), which then is repeated discreetly in the ear of the person to her right, then to the person to his right, and on and on until the last child on "the line" announces the phrase to the rest of the group, usually to hilarious effect.

What at first might have been "Carrie read 5 pages in the big yellow book" ends up as "Kenny fed 9 babies and the pig yelled 'Look!'" Needless to say, a few phonetic details always get lost in translation.

However fun this might be for children, did you know that a grown-up version of this exercise has been playing out for centuries? And no, it's not sharing gossip about relatives. This activity is even longer running than the saga of Aunt Mary’s lawn ornaments and the neighbor’s dog.

In fact, we all participate in this exercise, albeit unwillingly. Instead of a mundane phrase like "Carrie read 5 pages," it's famous quotes like “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes" by Mark Twain. Except that Mark Twain never penned this quote, making the attribution even more ironic.

“Misquotations” are a longstanding problem in the written and verbal history of humanity. For instance, I used to quip: “As Ingrid Bergman says, ‘Play it again, Sam.’" To my retrospective embarrassment, this is not something Ingrid Bergman ever said. So, how does this happen? Why can't we collectively get the story straight?

The explanations are many, but the reason is pretty simple: our method of trading quotes has been flawed for centuries. We either mistakenly trust the source that delivers the quote, or we misattribute it by close association. The latter was the case for a particular quote, commonly tied to Anton Chekhov, in this New York Times article: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” However, the real attribution likely belongs to a playwright who penned the line for Bing Crosby in a play adapted from another playwright who was mentioned in the passage of a book as having a loose association with Chekhov’s style of drama. Sounds a lot like “Telephone,” right?

Word-of-mouth, human memory and manual transcription are notoriously inaccurate. You might think that these errors would be relatively easy to correct, given how readily accessible information is today. However, let’s not forget that we’re also living in the era of “fake news.” Because the Internet was originally optimized to spread information freely, but not weed out misinformation, the inherently human struggle to distinguish fact from fiction has continued even in 2017.

The solution to misinformation, no doubt, will be found in some kind of automated fact-checker that might one day permeate many of our public communications systems. Some companies are already using the upcoming European elections as a test run for this type of software. Like with so many other facets of humanity, we can only hope that technology can eventually smooth these fallacies out of the fabric of history once and for all.


About the author

Connie O'Brien

As CMO, Connie is responsible for the Tungsten Network brand and ensuring the firm is at the forefront of the digital transformation of the purchase-to-pay process, with a focus on how we delight our customers through automated, scalable, dynamic and personalised experiences. Connie joined Tungsten from Affinion Group, an international membership and loyalty company where she was Chief Digital Officer. She has over twenty years’ experience driving digital marketing strategies for businesses, and has delivered campaigns for brands including GlaxoSmithKline, P&G, Kraft Foods, AXA, John Hancock, AT&T, Vonage and Verizon.


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