Gimbling in the Wabe – No Room at the Algonquin

by Sharon Browning

I pretty much live in awe of folks who can, without aid, quote a great work, or a great speech, or a pithy saying or response from great thinkers or writers or philosophers … or whatever.  Who often can, in the middle of a conversation, inject (and to be honest, often without conceit) “that reminds me of what Churchill once said….” or “I think it was Mark Twain who said…” or who can simply recite a line of Shakespeare – one of those that aren’t no brainers, like “To be or not to be” or “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”.


Me?  Well, let’s just say, Dorothy Parker, I ain’t.  I can barely quote the no brainers.  In fact, when searching for no brainers to quote in this essay, I had to reject “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” because I didn’t know if the correct wording was “nor” or “or”.  I’m pretty sure it’s “nor”, but I’d have to look it up to confirm that.  The same holds true even for one of my very favorite Shakespeare quotes.  Despite using it time and time again, I can’t for the life of me remember if the correct wording is “This above all – to thine own self be true” or “This above all things – to thine own self be true.”

And accuracy is important.  A quote is an absolute.  Anything else is paraphrasing, and when you are attributing words to someone else, being absolute is imperative.  After all, the person being quoted is rarely around to confirm the veracity of what is being said.  If their words are being invoked, then there should be enough respect in play to make sure the words are right.  Right?  I know some of you out there have to agree, due to the proliferation of social media stills of the likes where an image of Benjamin Franklin is next to the text, ascribed to Abraham Lincoln, saying, “The trouble with quotes on the internet is that you can never know if they are genuine.”

Of course, some misquotes and/or incorrect attributes have become legendary, and pretty much universally accepted.  Sherlock Holmes never did say, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” and nowhere in the original series of Star Trek did anyone say, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Just like how “With great power comes great responsibility,” was not originally said by a dying Ben Parker to his nephew who would become Spiderman; instead, it was a final panel of the original story and was not uttered by any specific character.  (I could have used the examples of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, which has been attributed to Voltaire but was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, or “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive,” often thought of as a quote from Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” but is actually from Sir Walter Scott’s “Marmion”, but I thought the pop culture references would be more entertaining.)

But I digress. (I do that a lot.)

What really trips my trigger, though, and we see this all too often in social media, is a photoshopped picture or a some other graphic with a quote attached being shared around without the quote being attributed to a source.  Or a poem is posted, or a tiny story or a song lyric, where the author is not named.  To me, this smacks of stealing; at the very least it’s a type of piracy.  I mean, sure, single quotes are not generally copywrited or otherwise protected, and often quoting someone is considered a validation, a sign of respect.  But if the creator of those words is not, at the very least, identified, then how can it be claimed that using their words is a compliment?  Laziness does not excuse poor manners or lack of adequate follow through.

No, I’m not saying that those who use uncredited quotes or lyrics should be prosecuted.  There is a kind of limit on the ramification of being in bad form, after all.  And a lot of the social media quotes out there – probably the vast majority – are not really attributable to any one author. But I would hope anyone who claims to love the written word would ensure that they always credit where credit is due, and will not, out of sheer lack of diligence, allow a quote to circulate without attribution, or worse yet, let it appear that they themselves are the authors of a well turned phrase or lovely couplet simply by not taking the time to acknowledge the true creator.

But now I guess I’m just coming across as a crotchety old lady.

Okay, moving on to a different tact.  Because my power of recall is so tenuous, I have to greatly admire actors, and anyone who memorizes great amounts of words, words, words. (People who can think quickly on their feet, or improvise on a theme, or who are able to whip off a witty comeback at the drop of a hat are on a different page of my godly lexicon, but they’re another digression for another day, perhaps.)  For me, personally, bringing words to life would be a lesser effort than even just remembering them in the first place!

Which brings me to a cherished memory.  Many, many years ago, before I had children or got married, I spent a summer in Platteville, Wisconsin, home of the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival.  I had hoped to be part of the troupe as a musician, but hadn’t made the cut.  Still, I had friends there, including the fellow I considered to be my boyfriend (who later was to become my husband), he was the lighting designer and a pre-show juggler.  To make ends meet, I was working the night shift at a nearby canning factory while he worked at the Festival.  In the mornings, after I got off work, I would stop by his place on my way back to my apartment, to wake him up and sometimes to claim a much needed foot rub. Often while doing this, he would quote Shakespeare to me – it was the sweetest thing.  “See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!  O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!”  I was utterly charmed.  Who wouldn’t fall in love with a guy who claimed you were the Juliet to his Romeo, or the Rosalind to his Orlando?

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that he tended to quote whatever show it was that he was working on at the time.  At the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival, it was “Romeo and Juliet”.  When he worked at prestigious Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, it was more likely to be Dr. Seuss (“Very serious nonsense!”) or Lewis Carroll (“Curiouser and curiouser…”).  I still found it charming, though.  It still won my heart.  Which just goes to show you – never underestimate the power of a good quote.

Oh, and the Shakespearean quote from earlier?  It’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

I looked it up.

Related Posts