Repeating Erroneously the Words of Another

Glenn Branch

Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. By Garston O’Toole. Little A, New York, 2017. ISBN 978-150-393341-5. 383 pp. Softcover, $14.95.


To answer the question suggested by the title of Garson O’Toole’s book, what Hemingway didn’t say—supposedly in order to win a bet that he could write a short story only six words long—was the tearjerker “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The pseudonymous O’Toole operates the Quote Investigator website (https://quoteinvestigator.com/), which is devoted to “exploring the origins of quotations,” especially with the aid of electronic resources such as Google Books. Hemingway Didn’t Say That is, in effect, the Quote Investigator’s greatest hits in book form, except that while the website addresses a fair number of genuine quotations, the book focuses only on the bogus.

O’Toole thus considers sixty-three misattributed, manufactured, or mangled quotations in his book. The entries are separated into four chapters by the likely mechanisms whereby the error was produced: group error (including synthesis, ventriloquy, and proverbial wisdom), reading error (including textual proximity, real-world proximity, and similar names), author error (including concoctions—such as the Hemingway quotation of the title—and historical fiction), and finders keepers (including capture and host). These mechanisms are named and explained in the book’s introduction. Throughout, O’Toole’s discussion is careful, judicious, and plausible.

Hemingway Didn’t Say That is a moderately diverting read. O’Toole’s prose is serviceable, although there are a few odd turns of phrase—e.g., he writes, “The translation from German to English given here was performed by Walter Kaufmann” (284): “performed”?—and his affectation of referring to himself as “QI” (for Quote Investigator) is tiresome. It is probably better to browse and sample than to slog through the book cover to cover, for there is a fair amount of repetition within each entry because O’Toole diligently produces a chronological list of appearances of a given quotation, and a certain monotony emerges among the entries because they tend to share the same general outline.

O’Toole’s focus on the quotation at hand, though understandable, sometimes results in lost opportunities. In the course of his discussion of “Easy reading is hard writing,” for example, he writes, “In 1849 Graham’s American Monthly Magazine favorably reviewed a history work by the famous philosopher David Hume” (315). A reader unfamiliar with Hume might wonder why a philosopher was dabbling in history; explaining that it was in fact Hume’s history of England (1754–1761; the magazine was reviewing a new edition) that won him fame and fortune, while his philosophical genius began to be widely acknowledged only after his death, would have added to the interest of the entry.

What is the overall value of Hemingway Didn’t Say That? With only sixty-three quotations, it is anything but compendious. Anyone seeking a reliable source of quotations with which to point a moral or adorn a tale would do better to invest in a book of quotations with a conscientious editor, such as The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), edited by Fred R. Shapiro, or The Quote Verifier (2006) by Ralph Keyes, both of which O’Toole repeatedly praises in his own book. And with only a few pages devoted to a sketch of O’Toole’s methods, it is no substitute for a manual for investigating the true provenance of a quotation, although perhaps here experience is the best teacher.

But, although there are only a few references to scientists and skeptics (including Steve Allen, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Carl Sagan) in the book, there is a valuable lesson for skeptics here: namely, nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it. O’Toole’s work on the quotations he investigates is a model of skeptical inquiry. And it is a helpful reminder of the importance of investigating the opportunistic use of quotations by pseudoscientists, who often find that a quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself—always a laborious business—and who often handle them incompetently or even unscrupulously.

For example, a quotation supposedly from Darwin—“Not one change of species into another is on record … we cannot prove that a single species has been changed”—is in constant circulation among creationists. But inquiry à la O’Toole reveals that the second half is attributable to Francis Darwin—a gloss on a letter of his father’s from 1863—while the first half is attributable to the Harvard geologist Nathaniel Shaler circa 1902–1903, with the fusion and misattribution owing to the slapdashery of a Lutheran pastor, Theodore Graebner, writing in 1921. But the quotation persists, appearing, for example, in Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress’s Outrageous Truth (2008).

Skeptics themselves ought to be careful with their own use of quotations. I have to confess my own sins here. In September 2005, writing in the Society for Sedimentary Geology’s magazine, I encouraged geoscientists to become involved in efforts to defend the integrity of science education by urging them to “bear the famous admonition of Margaret Mead in mind: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.’” Mea culpa: there is no evidence for Mead ever saying so, although the Institute for Intercultural Studies, founded by Mead in 1944, later took the quotation as its motto (and indeed registered it as a trademark). Do as I say, not as I do!

Glenn Branch

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution and climate science. He is the coeditor, with Eugenie C. Scott, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).


Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. By Garston O’Toole. Little A, New York, 2017. ISBN 978-150-393341-5. 383 pp. Softcover, $14.95. To answer the question suggested by the title of Garson O’Toole’s book, what Hemingway didn’t say—supposedly in order to win a bet that he could write a short story only six words …

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