7.01.2013

everything else is either public relations or a misattributed quote

I saw this:



and thought: that doesn't sound like Orwell.

I have read almost everything Orwell ever published, and will eventually read everything, including all the published letters. While no one could remember every line from every essay, this just doesn't sound like our man Eric Blair to me. Orwell wasn't given to aphorisms or one-liners. It doesn't fit in the theme of any book or essay. The essay that seems most relevant, "Politics and the English Language," does not contain this line. I was skeptical.

I did several internet searches, hoping to find a source that attributed the quote to a specific book or essay. Nothing. The quote, attributed to Orwell, is all over the internet, but not one site ever indicates where it comes from. That seemed very significant. On this Wikiquote page, other people are asking the same question, and also not finding any attribution to specific work.

I posted about it on Facebook, hoping someone might have an idea on how to research it. One friend had the excellent idea of asking an Orwell expert.

I emailed six people who have either written books about Orwell, curated exhibits about him, or run websites relating to his work. Two authors responded and told me that in their research, they never came upon the quote, anywhere. That's likely the closest we can ever come to ruling out that Orwell wrote that line.

Finally, La Zerbisias, as I like to call her, turned me on to the fascinating rabbit-hole Quote Investigator. Check out QI's extensive research on the "everything else is public relations" line. Similar quotes have been attributed to: George Orwell, Alfred Harmsworth, William Randolph Hearst, Brian R. Roberts, Malcolm Muggeridge, Katharine Graham, Lord Rothermere, and Lord Northcliffe. Their conclusion: anonymous.

It's tempting to blame the internet age for all this misattribution, but that's just shooting the messenger. As QI clearly shows, false attributions were common long before the digital age. The internet just spreads them faster.

If you enjoy fake-quotation research, you might like to read (or re-read) this wmtc post about some famous lines Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson never said: you can look it up. If nothing else, scroll down to enjoy the pics and the comments.

6 comments:

johngoldfine said...

Nice detective work, Master of Information!

Apart from the obviousness and triteness of the whole quotation, the phrase 'public relations' is what gives me particular doubts. It's just the sort of weasel term Orwell would not have used. Surely he would have preferred 'propaganda.'

And would he have been so sloppy as to use 'else' in abutting sentences, especially when the first 'else' is unnecessary and confusing?

Not my George Orwell!

And, finally, how widespread would such an American idea and term have been in 30s and 40s Britain?

Kirby Evans said...

I sometimes listen to an interesting PBS program calling "A Way With Words" which is essentially about etymology. One of the hosts ran across a quote that didn't sound right to him (I can't remember what the quote was now) and so he set about to search everywhere including the Library of Congress. He finally realized that some mischief maker had intentionally put it on a wiki page and all other references to the quote could be traced back to that.

But as you say, misattribution is not a child of the digital age. In the early sixties my father, facing a desperate deadline for something, made-up a quote and attributed it to an important American political figure. The quote ended up in national print and more than once he saw the quote attributed to the person that he had claimed made it. He always felt kind of bad.

laura k said...

Nice detective work, Master of Information!

Ha ha, thanks. Real librarian stuff, too - I didn't do the research, but I found sources who had.

Very good point re American-sounding quote, and the word "public relations," which was in use in Orwell's time, but which somehow I don't hear Orwell using.

Katharine Graham and/or W R Hearst makes more sense, although SHEESH, Hearst talking about public relations?! *coughSpanishAmericanWarcough*
He taught the world how it was done!

laura k said...

In the early sixties my father, facing a desperate deadline for something, made-up a quote and attributed it to an important American political figure. The quote ended up in national print and more than once he saw the quote attributed to the person that he had claimed made it.

Oh geez, to see your own brainchild move into the world that way!

Almost no one re-checks attribution -or facts, for that matter.

That show sounds great. I love etymology. I often use Etymonline and World Wide Words.

James Redekop said...

It's been said that eventually, once the Internet's been around long enough, every statement will end up attributed to either Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut.

laura k said...

One of my favourites (seen on FB) is

"Always check your internet quotes." - Abraham Lincoln, in an email to Mark Twain

or some similar combo.