Sunday, November 18, 2007

Quotes and Misquotes: Well-Behaved Women, Nice Guys, and the Age of Trust

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 article about Puritan women. Ulrich was writing about women who were, by the standards of their time and place, well-behaved, and was trying to give them the recognition she believed they deserved. But that single sentence had a life of its own. Her quote has shown up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, posters, and so on. And of course, the quote has been taken out of context . It’s also been attributed to more well-known feminists, such as Gloria Steinem.

And Ulrich doesn’t have a problem with her quote as a slogan, for she’s written a new book outlining the lives of women who were not well-behaved, at least, according to their time and place, and showing how they did make history. You can guess the title.
Ulrich’s recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show reminded me of another quote taken out of context, but with unhappier results.

In 1964, Jack Weinberg, an activist with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, was interviewed by a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Weinberg, then aged 24, got the feeling that the reporter was trying to label the student protest movement as Communist. As a gibe at the reporter, and to separate the movement from old-line Communists, he said, “We have a saying in the movement that you can’t trust anybody over thirty.”

In “Nice Guys Finish Seventh:” False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), Ralph Keyes writes:

“Among the few sixties radicals to stay active in social causes (Greenpeace, most recently), Weinberg was chagrined that his most lasting claim to fame is this puerile remark. ‘It’s a bit disappointing,’ he has observed, ‘that the one event that puts me in the history books--the one thing people ask me to comment on--is an off-the-wall-put-down I once made to a reporter.’ To make matters worse, the reporter he was trying to discredit as a reactionary turned out to be a veteran of progressive causes.”

And Weinberg often doesn’t even get credit for the quote, which is more frequently attributed to the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Which brings us to Keyes’s axioms of misquotation:

1. Any quotation that can be altered will be
2. Famous quotes need famous mouths.

Ulrich’s line is pithy enough that it isn’t altered, while Weinberg’s gets shortened to “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” a minor change. Axiom 2 applies more to their lines. For a good example of the first axiom, let’s examine Keyes’s title, which is itself, a misquote.

“Nice guys finish last,” is probably Leo Durocher’s most famous quote, or rather, misquote. Keyes tells us what he really said. It was July 5, 1946, and Durocher was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the National League. Their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, were in seventh place--next to last. Keyes describes an impromptu press conference that day:

“Although the Giants had beaten his team the day before, Durocher ridiculed their pathetic record and dinky home runs. Red Barber, Brooklyn’s radio announcer why he didn’t admit that the Giants’ home runs were as good as anyone’s. ’Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change,’ needled Barber.

“Durocher leaped to his feet. ’A nice guy?’ he shouted. ’A nice guy!’ I been around baseball for a long time and I’ve known a lot of nice guys. But I never saw a nice guy who was any good when you needed him….’

“Durocher pointed at the Giants’ dugout, saying, ’Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than [Giants’ manager] Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!

“’The nice guys over there are in seventh place. Well let them come and get me.’

“He waved contemptuously toward the other dugout. ‘The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.’

“That’s it, folks. That’s the genesis of ’Nice guys finish last,’ as reported by Frank Graham of New York’s Journal-American… When Graham’s original column was reprinted in Baseball Digest that fall, Durocher’s references to nice guys finishing in ’seventh place’ had been changed to ’last place’ and ’in the second division.’ Before long Leo’s credo was bumper-stickered into ’Nice guys finish last.’”

If you’re interested in quotes, and how they came to be, find a copy of “Nice Guys Finish Seventh.” But be prepared to find that the quotes of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Winston Churchill, and many others, were not always original.

21 comments:

Julie said...

Steve, need to come back to this one to give it its due, but thanks for the comment; left a reply on mine.

Depending on your sense of humour, have a look at Dark Gold in the Journey (second blog) if you're passing through. It happened almost exactly as written...

Lisa said...

I love reading things like this. I'm always amazed (although I shouldn't be anymore) to learn that quotes that become part of the common vernacular are so frequently taken out of context.

Charles Gramlich said...

Misquotes are an example of how writing is better than talking. If those who had been misquoted had a chance, they'd have revised for a better quote.

"Nice guys finish seventh" would be much better when revised to "nice guys finish last."

Let's hear it for writing.

SzélsőFa said...

an interesting compilation, Steve. thanks for the info.

Sustenance Scout said...

Ditto, Steve. Nifty stuff. Also wanted to comment on your comment on Lisa's current post. Can't say I'm surprised you come from such an academic family. I hope life in Iowa was at least a little fun for you as a young kid. Certainly sounds like it was interesting. K.

steve said...

Julie--I read Dark Gold, and I'm afraid I didn't find it funny. "I "felt your pain," as Bill Clinton would say. It was well-written and it was easy to empathize with you, but my sense of humor is quirky. (I'll have to admit that if I could I'd live in a Chicago apartment or a Philadelphia rowhouse. My wife, though, loves gardening, so I'm probably going to have a detached house for the forseeable future.)

Lisa--I agree. But I'm disappointed to learn that Coolidge didn't say, "When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results. Keyes thinks James Thurber may have made that one up and attributed it to Coolidge.

Charles--A lot of the time they are revised. By the time Durocher wrote his autobiography, entitled "Nice Guys Finish Last," he believed he had said it. But your point is well taken. "Well-behaved women seldom make history" was written, and didn't have to be revised.

Szelsofa--Thank you for visiting, even though your wings are still whirring. Have a good time on your short break.

Karen--Yes, life was interesting, even though while in high school I was really an outsider to both the academic and the working-class worlds. Except for the one year I went to Cedar Falls High. "When I was Clean for Gene," (December 2005 archive) deals with the politics of war and race in 1968, and the one year of high school where I got to be somebody.

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

Steve, thanks for your comments -
Dark Gold was a one-off; no sweat.

Had a look at the Philadelphia emails. Moving - enjoyed the Zagar murals.

I once sprinted the entire length of Phil airport in bare feet to catch a connecting flight to Colorado.

Two Nations divided by a single language - attributed to Churchill, who may have taken it from GBS or Wilde or Whistler.

steve said...

Julie--Thanks for the update. If you checked on the links for the Chicago building I worked in, you got the cathedral in Helsinki. I'll need to update that link.

As far as the quote, It looks as if Wilde and Shaw had slightly different versions. I found a 1975article in Horizon Magazine, called, "Of Panda Cars and Panthechnicons, Biros and Blimps," and may post about it.

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, just stopping by to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving there in the heartland. Enjoy! K.

Julie said...

Replied on mine; Coulthard would be easy to trace back if he's that recent?

Article I read said that quotes are malleable as they are passed around.

Julie said...

Steve - have just seen the BBC NI documentary. Details on mine (23rd) when you're passing through.

steve said...

Julie-Read your post and left a comment, along with one at Fish and Chips in The Journey.

Karen--Thank you. My "weekend" is Wednesday and Thursday, so I got to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I hope your Thanksgiving was happy as well.

Julie said...

assorted replies on mine incl one on aviation art...

Tony Wesley said...

I stumbled across this blog while googling for the origin of 'Don't trust anyone over thirty'.

Julie mentions a quote attributed to Churchill. I've joked that if I don't know the source of a quote, I simply attribute it to Churchill or Teddy Roosevelt.

steve said...

Tony--Thanks for visiting. Mark Twain, G.B. Shaw, and Ben Franklin are good choices as well.

Carol said...

Thanks so much for this! I just read Ulrich's Midwife's Tale and had no idea that the quote (or misquote) came from her. Having read her book, I totally understand the context because Martha Ballard was an amazing woman who did so much for her small New England town but is not recorded in the history books because she was a woman. Thanks!

Laura said...

Actually, Eleanor Roosevelt said it first. Another mis-quote is born. Ironic, no?

steve on the slow train said...

Laura--Check out

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/misattributed-eleanor-roosevelt

While there are a lot people on the Web who have attributed this quote to Eleanor Roosevelt, none that I've seen has given a source. I think it's an example of Keyes's axiom, "Famous Quotes Need Famous Mouths."

steve on the slow train said...

Carol--I've been neglecting my blolg lately. Thank you for your comment. Your comment and Laura's may have prodded me into blogging again.

Clay said...

"You can't believe all the quotes you find on the Internet." -- Abraham Lincoln