Reader Bruce Cleaver mentioned Rees's First Law of Quotation but got it a bit wrong. Though not in the law itself, Nigel Rees does mention Mr. Cleaver's preferred default sources: Winston Churchill and Mark Twain.

Hence, Rees's First Law of Quotation: `When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw.' The law's first qualification is: `Except when they obviously derive from Shakespeare, the Bible or Kipling.' The corollary is: `In time, all humorous remarks will be ascribed to Shaw whether he said them or not.'

Why should this be? People are notoriously lax about quoting and attributing remarks correctly, as witness an analogous process I shall call Churchillian Drift. The Drift is almost indistinguishable from the First Law, but there is a subtle difference. Whereas quotations with an apothegmatic feel are normally ascribed to Shaw, those with a more grandiose or belligerent tone are almost automatically credited to Churchill. All quotations in translation, on the other hand, should be attributed to Goethe (with `I think' obligatory).

Shaw, Churchill, Wilde, Lincoln and Twain are, in fact, fixed in the popular mind as practically the sole source of witty and quotable sayings. But what is alarming is the way in which almost any remark not obviously tied to some other originator will one day find itself attributed to one of these five.

I myself have had great success attributing dubious bits of wisdom to Benjamin Franklin.



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