misquotations beam me up on yer bike, Yorick

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The Independent Online
Was it not Captain James T Spock of the Starship Jefferson Airplane who first said: "Make my day, Yorick"? No, it was not. But it was William Shakespeare who, in 1596, in the First Part of Henry IV wrote: "Looke how we can, or sad or merrily, Interpretation will misquote our lookes."

That, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the earliest recorded use of the word "misquote", which makes this year the time to celebrate four centuries of misquotations.

Though 400 years old, the art of the misquotation has been sadly neglected until recently. Oxford, and others, have brought out imposing tomes of quotations, but we had to wait until 1995 for the first dictionary of misquotations (You Don't Say, by Barry Phelps, published by Macmillan at pounds 5.99). Phelps disabuses us of many of our most cherished misconceptions: John Wayne never said "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"; James T Kirk never said "Beam me up, Scotty"; Norman Tebbit never said "On yer bike"; Clint Eastwood didn't say "Make my day, punk"; and Sam Goldwyn never said: "I can answer you in two words: im-possible."

Yet to boldly misquote is not a practice to be condemned in itself. We should not condone "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well", (delete the "well", substitute "Horatio"), or "Such stuff as dreams are made of" ("on", not "of"), but a number of useful expressions have entered the language through misquotation. A constructive misquoter might even be applauded on the grounds that there's method in his madness ("though this be madness, yet there is method in't" was what Polonius actually said of Hamlet). It would be gilding the lily to give too many examples (from "to gild refined gold, to paint the lily" in King John). Even with a gilded lily, we should have to admit that all that glitters is not gold ("glisters" in the original speech from The Merchant of Venice).

Shakespeare is not the only one to have suffered. The Bible has received even worse treatment. We all know the proverb "pride comes [or goes] before a fall", but that's not what the Book of Proverbs said. It was: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." And though it may make little difference, we should note that money is not the root of all evil, but the love of money (1 Timothy). We may be relieved to have escaped disaster by the skin of our teeth, but what Job actually said was: "I am escaped with the skin of my teeth."

A truly creative misquotation, however, should improve the original. Dan Quayle never said, when visiting Latin America, "I wish I'd studied Latin at school so I could talk to you in your own language." The line was invented by Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, but it was so much better a gaffe than most of those perpetrated by the former vice-president that it stuck. Anyway, it's hard to disbelieve anything of a man who cannot spell "potato".

And when Marx didn't say "All property is theft", and Harold Macmillan didn't say "You've never had it so good", and Sam Goldwyn didn't say "I've read all of it part of the way through", who's to say that they would not have uttered those very words if only they had thought of them first?

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