Musings on Misquotes

Chatting with a friend about Oscar Wilde after positively ages, I decided to check what bits of his delightfully acerbic and waspish wit has adorned the first page of a Google-search lately.

One of the very first hits was a Goodreads quote-compilation, which I thought was handy and very delightful, till I realised that some of the quotes attributed to the poor sharp brilliant persecuted man couldn’t possibly have crossed his lips (or the nibs of his pen).

Now, I’m neither a linguist nor a literary historian, so you might question my conviction; but I do have a very discerning sense of the vapid, and a reasonably good sense of patterns peculiar both to a person and his time. Even if we accept for the moment that Wilde indulged in shallow pertness or mawkish optimism on occasion, I find it very hard to accept that a man of his time and sensibilities would birth such gems to the world as “Crying is for plain women. Pretty women go shopping”.

To focus merely on the technical, I doubt the phrase “going shopping” was used in quite this context in his time and his social class. Perhaps it has been extracted from this source-quote: “Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones [Lady Windermere’s Fan]“. The two are not remotely similar in sentiment, but they do share the key words “plain” and “pretty”, and I suppose that is enough to warrant a molestation of meaning in these shallow times. These instances below probably suffered similar fates, (although I couldn’t be bothered to hunt the probable originals down):

  1. Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.
  2. Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.
  3. If you are not long, I will wait for you all my life.
  4. You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear. [I know, I know.]

Looking at the obvious contemporary flavour of 1 and 2 – crisis of confidence coupled with the need to be validated as unique and “special” – I’m surprised people haven’t immediately spotted them as fakes. Neither does the language belong in the time; indeed, the concerns of Wilde’s age would probably be about fitting in, since “outliers” resulted more often from social ostracisations than voluntary standing apart in confidence and joy. For reference, read a biography of Wilde.

About numbers 3 and 4, I would prefer not to comment. Jesus. Never mind that this is Oscar Wilde we’re talking about, how can “cars” not be a flapping red flag? But then it seems to me that a lot of people have lost the skill to distinguish between styles specific to people, place and times. I saw the GoodReads page for Lewis Carroll, and was surprised to see similarly anachronistic language and sentiments attributed to him. For example, “You used to be much more…”muchier.” You’ve lost your muchness“, and “I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours”.

It’s quite shocking, really. What’s going wrong with people and their damned education?

Or perhaps, I should ask, what is going right with people’s education? Perhaps that fact of flawed understanding being posted online indicates

(a) far greater access to these books than earlier – an encouraging de-elitisation of literary classics
(b) and their ability to nurture the habit of reading by participating in reader-communities online.
(c) the superfluity of such skills as the ability to contextualise historical periods through form or content of literature, to enjoying a good book

I personally think that the joy of reading is linked inextricably to the knowledge about its historical context, and that in political reading at least, historicity if of vital importance, but if that is something that has – with the expansion of education and habit of reading beyond the affluent classes – been classified as an expertise and not a necessity, well, as a lover of the written word I can only say I’m happy to adapt. Context is of great important, but perhaps we should rejoice in the expansion of non-discriminatory reading practices, and build on from there?


One comment

  1. Social media responses:

    James W. Hoover – This is what cars looked like in Oscar Wilde’s day. I’m not sure if you’d love anyone for owning this. But you might ask them to take you for a spin.

    James W. Hoover – While “ownership” is great and all, the shocking inability of most younger people, today, to comprehend the context of… well, anything… is a tremendous blow to civilization. Without mastering context, you can’t understand anything. Life loses all subtlety and meaning without context.

    Me – This above is my core belief about everything, but then I suppose if people are at least getting back to reading, we might consider a little leeway before accosting them? (I’m not entirely convinced myself, but well…)

    James W. Hoover – Not everything gets to be a Disney cartoon. 🙂

    Me – I suppose you’re right.

    James W. Hoover – I mean, I like Disney cartoons as much as the next person, but….

    Me – If the next person is me, you don’t like Disney cartoons much. You prefer Pixar while it was still Pixar.

    James W. Hoover – Which reminds me… and speaking of context. There’s a very disturbing display at our local store, beside the cash registers. Plastic “Disney Princess” sippy cups, with nothing but a princess’s head sticking out of the lid, with a straw through it. She’s smiling, of course. Heidi and I are constantly glancing at them, then at each other, wondering what sort of twisted freak thought these were a good idea.

    Me – Probably a Chinese gent with a big outsourced manufacturing order and a limited grasp of cuteness?

    James W. Hoover – Ha! I remember when a U.S. television crew doing stories about Mardi Gras went to Vietnam to the factory where they make the infamous “Mardi Gras beads,” to see if the women who worked there had any idea what they were making. They said, “No.” When the purpose of the beads was explained, the women looked skeptical for a moment, some of them snorted and laughed, and one of them said, “That’s stupid. Really? Someone should tell them that’s ridiculous.”


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