Awful pedants of the world, unite!

NPR has an article inspired by Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, investigating the phenomenon of the torrent of bogus quotations that flow through social media and occasionally make the people quoting them look foolish, as when the Republican National Committee tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with the quote, “‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years’ — Abraham Lincoln,” and when the US Postal Service put a misattributed quote on a stamp dedicated to Maya Angelou.

On the whole it’s a nice essay, making the point that the use of quotes has changed: “We do quotation differently now. Time was when it was chiefly a literary device, a way of weaving an essay or speech into an ongoing conversation with the past … Now they’re self-sufficient atoms of wisdom that make their own way in the world — passed along in chain emails, tweeted, posted on Instagram and Pinterest boards, inscribed on bracelets and household items.”

But then for some reason the author of this essay feels the need to throw some shade on Mr. O’Toole by saying “But you’d have to be an awful pedant to spend your time railing at the sloppy scholarship on motivational posters and coffee mugs. As long as they inspire and they console, most people couldn’t care less who actually said them.” It’s a shame to describe Mr O’Toole, who has been kind enough to help with one of the quotations on this site, as an “awful pedant.”

I guess that those of us who care about the accuracy of quotations are not like “most people,” and in that I rejoice. The Buddha’s often quoted as talking about “the manyfolk” as spiritually uninstructed and unwise. The word he used was actually puthujjana, which is a singular rather than a plural term, and is more accurately rendered as something like “ordinary person,” “worldling” or “run-of-the-mill person.”

The puthujjana is not to be despised (it’s a term for any person who has not attained the first stage of enlightenment) but early Buddhism was certainly not democratic and did not see the mass of unawakened individuals as a source of guidance, and instead looked to those who had, through skill and hard work, developed insight and wisdom.

If you’d like to distinguish yourself from most people (and I hope you do) then I hope you’ll get a hold of Garson O’Toole’s new book. Any book that sparks intellectual curiosity and a concern for accuracy is, in my opinion, worthwhile. And you can quote me on that.

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