The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Famous words but never uttered

Los Angeles, Oct. 25 (Reuters): Showman P.T. Barnum never said “there’s a sucker born every minute” although he wished he had. And Civil War Admiral David Farragut probably never said “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead” — words that have inspired generations of fighting men.

To make things even more complicated, it is doubtful that Paul Revere warned “the British are coming” when he would have at the time of the American Revolution thought himself British, although a revolting one. He probably would have said “the redcoats are coming.”

A new, meticulously researched book of quotations attempts to set the record straight on those beloved phrases that have crept into everyday use as signs of wisdom and wit, including Sigmund Freud’s sage advice that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. (He didn’t quite say that, although his biographer thinks he would have approved of the idea.)

The Yale Book of Quotations has a simple thesis: famous quotes are often misquoted and misattributed. Sometimes they are never said at all but are, instead, little fictions that have forged their way into public consciousness.

Take, for example, “damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” a rallying cry supposedly uttered by Farragut during the American Civil War battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.

According to Fred R. Shapiro, a Yale librarian and editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, it was a comment either never said or at least never heard on the day of battle. The first appearance of a partial version of the phrase came in a book published in 1878 but reports from the day of the battle never mention the phrase.

It can get “curiouser and curiouser”, to quote something Lewis Carroll actually did write. General William T. Sherman did not quite say “war is hell” but those were words uttered by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Sherman’s version was a wee bit longer: “there is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell.” Close, but no cigar, as Groucho Marx might have said on his quiz show when someone failed to guess the colour of an orange correctly.

Barnum admitted he never said “there’s a sucker born every minute”, although he thought he may have said “the people like to be humbugged”, a less than ringing phrase.

According to research by Shapiro, the “sucker” phrase was probably uttered by a notorious con man named “Paper Collar Joe” and attributed to Barnum by a rival showman, who wanted to make him look bad.

To find out who said what and when they said it, Shapiro spent six years poring over hundreds of databases, using advanced Internet searches as well as the more old-fashioned microfilms, dusty bookshelves and reading the 1,000 or so other quotation books that are out there to find out the truth.

The result is a 1,067-page quotations book with footnotes that are as fascinating to read as the quotes themselves.

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