Do you know who coined the phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute?” Most people think it was showman P.T. Barnum. How about the phrase, “The British are coming?” Were you taught it was Paul Revere? Apparently, neither man uttered the phrases–according to the author of a new meticulously researched book of quotations. The book attempts to set the record straight on the aforementioned popular phrases that have crept into everyday use, 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.)
After six years of research Fred R. Shapiro has finally completed “The Yale Book of Quotations.” His literary masterpiece is a 1,067-page quotations book with footnotes that are as fascinating to read as the quotes themselves. According to Shapiro, the book 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 the phrase, “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 Shapiro, a Yale librarian, 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.
And the phrase: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Shapiro says P.T. Barnum admitted that he never uttered the phrase. Although according to Shapiro, Barnum may have said, “The people like to be humbugged” a less than striking phrase. Shapiro says the “sucker” phrase was probably spoken by a notorious con man named “Paper Collar Joe” and attributed to Barnum by a rival showman, who wanted to make him look bad.
So why should we believe Shapiro? After all, how many teachers have you encountered that have insisted Paul Revere actually warned: “The British are coming?” Shapiro says the proof is in the research. To find out who said what and when they did it, the author says he spent six years poring over hundreds and hundreds of databases, using advanced Internet searches as well as using the more old-fashioned methods of going through microfilms, dusty bookshelves and reading the 1,000 or so other quotation books that are out there to find out the truth. Shapiro said he also had another goal: “to represent popular culture in a quotations book, including advertising jingles and lines from popular songs and movies.”
As for the Revere warning… Shapiro says it’s doubtful that Paul Revere warned that “The British are coming” when he would have at the time of the American Revolution thought himself British. He probably would have said, “The Redcoats are coming.”