Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Misquotations Catch On

How sayings from books, movies, and speeches get misremembered, care of the Atlantic.

From the piece...

Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There's a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

In some cases, it's a simple question of word order. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" has an easier rhythm than the actual, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The change certainly matters if you're a poet, or preserving the integrity of Shakespeare. But at least it does no real harm to the meaning. 

In some, it's a simplification or contraction of something that's a bit messier to remember without it. "Beam me up, Scotty!" was never actually uttered by any Star Trek character. "Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" was, in the 1968 "Gamesters of Triskelion." Likewise, Humphrey Bogart's iconic "Play it again, Sam" was in reality, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it." Note how in both cases, the sense remains basically the same. The adjustments are minor ones. They aren't blatant misquotations so much as attempts to, on some level, make things sound the way they should sound. These misquotes are in the category of, "right, that's what I wanted to say—and maybe even how I wanted to say it."

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