Whose line is it anyway?

'If you are obscure, you will never be remembered for anything you say, even if you have gone to the trouble of creating a really good one-liner'
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The Independent Online

Paul Robeson once said that all handsome men are slightly sunburned, and Milligan was no exception. He had said it, too." (From 'Puckoon', by Spike Milligan.) Yes, it's a funny business, the quotation business, and knowing who really said what, and who said it first. Not long ago, when Spike Milligan died, and everyone quoted his remark about not being afraid of death, just not wanting to be there when it happened, I thought I would be a little know-all and point out that it was actually Woody Allen who said it first. It could only be a matter of time before someone brought me down a peg, and it has now happened to me in the wake of a piece I wrote last week about national prejudices.

I quoted the joke about the Frenchman who boasts to an Englishman that French cuisine is superior to English cooking, and when the Englishman retorts that British toilets and plumbing are generally better than the French equivalent, the Frenchman says: "Voilà la différence entre nous. En France on mange bien, en Angleterre on chie bien..."

Since then I have received a card from Mrs Sheila Cutforth, the widow of the great broadcaster and writer René Cutforth, as follows:

"Credit where credit is due. 'En Angleterre on chie bien' originated in an actual altercation between René and M Charles, head barman at the St George Hotel, Algiers, during the Algerian Civil War. René reported it on air, and also in No 12 of Cyril Ray's The Compleat Imbiber. I remember laughing as I typed it."

Well, it's nice to be able to find a father for a good line one had thought was an orphan, and who knows? It may get into the books of quotations one day, rightly attributed. I suppose it doesn't make a lot of difference to know the correct source of a quotation – if a line is good, it will stand by itself – but if someone has gone to the trouble of creating a good one-liner, he really ought to get the credit, even if it wasn't Cutforth at all who said it, but Charles the barman.

The other day I heard an amiable radio discussion on cynicism chaired by John Waite, in which the US journalist Michael Goldfarb quoted the line which is often attributed to Auberon Waugh: "When you are talking to a politician, keep saying to yourself, 'Why is this bastard lying to me?'" But Michael Goldfarb got it right, and correctly attributed it to Claud Cockburn, for which I raised a small cheer. (Goldfarb, unfashionably, also disapproved of the comment, and said that if we were always to treat politicians with such cynicism, they would never bother to tell the truth, and we wouldn't recognise it even if they did. I think he may be right...)

If quotations sometimes become detached from their creator, it also happens the other way round – that good remarks, apparently without a progenitor, get a source fastened to them. My friend Jim, who takes part in pub quizzes, tells me that there is one quote constantly turning up on quiz evenings that is attributed to different people almost every time, namely, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Sometimes it's Disraeli, sometimes Mark Twain, sometimes others who are meant to have said it. I have just looked it up in the different books of quotes I've got, and the only one that even lists it is HL Mencken in his Dictionary of Quotations, and he says that the author is unknown. Good for him.

The trouble is that if you are obscure, you will never be remembered for anything you say. Take Voltaire's famous "I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it." Now, Voltaire never said this. It was never said by anyone until more than a century after Voltaire's death. It first cropped up in a book written about him in about 1900, in which the author said something like: "If we had to sum up Voltaire's attitude, it is as if he said, 'I disapprove of etc etc'," and ever since then, people have assumed that Voltaire actually did say it.

I have often looked up this person's name in the old Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and I have always forgotten it later, and I have just looked it up again, and it was someone called SG Tallentyre in a book which he or she wrote called The Friends of Voltaire.

I feel sorry for old Tallentyre. He (or she) wrote the most famous remark that Voltaire is supposed to have come up with, and she (or he) is completely forgotten, because nobody has ever said, "Well, in the words of SG Tallentyre, 'I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.'" And I would start saying it myself, except that in a week's time I will have forgotten old Tallentyre's name again.

Well, there's glory for you. As someone or other once said.