Quotations ….by My Mother

My mother was a great communicator and even now, after three-quarters of a century, I remember how she would point her finger at me and say, “Do that one more time and I’ll take your pants down and give you a spanking you’ll never forget.” As I was growing up she would repeatedly announce at the dinner table, “Eat your carrots, they’re good for you.” or “Finish your plate, there are children starving in China.” Before I went upstairs each night she never hesitated to say, “Now brush your teeth and don’t forget to wash behind your ears.” It was only after talking to other classmates in first grade did I realize that my mother was just quoting other parents.
I recently came across a dictionary containing 25,000 quotations. The author had carefully researched the origins of each quotation and had grouped them into topics, i.e. angels, beauty, comedy, death, etc. Each quotation was then placed in chronological order with the first known source being at the top of the list. As you might expect, the biblical quotations (proverbs and psalms) were listed first. Then came William Shakespeare (1600 quotations), Ben Franklin, and Mark Twain.
We may not always remember a quotation precisely as it was spoken or written. For instance, it is not a little
knowledge that is “a dangerous thing,” but a little learning (Alexander Pope) and the lion will not lie down with the lamb, but with the fatling. (Isaiah 11.6) Checking the bible we find that the Israelites were not compelled to “make bricks without straw,” but to furnish their own straw. (Exodus 5.7) General W.T. Sherman did not say “War is Hell” but rather he said “There are many a boy here today who look on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” (Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 11, 1880)
If we were to stop for a moment and reflect, we would realize that something is wrong when we speak of “gilding the lily.” Lilies are not gold-colored. On consulting the Dictionary of Quotations you will find what happened in Shakespeare’s passage “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet….(King John IV ii). Our minds jump over “gold” and “paint” to place gild in front of “lily.” However, not all misquotes are mistakes, “but rather improvements. The popular “
by the skin of my teeth” is much better than the original version of “with the skin of my teeth.” Or the quote “Birds of a feather will flock together” sounds better than “Byrds of a fether, best flye together.”
The layman has a tendency to ascribe a quotation to whatever folk hero or villain might have said it. Marie Antoinette did not say “Let ‘em eat cake.” Horace Greeley insisted repeatedly that he borrowed “Go West, young man” from John Babson Soule of Terre Haute. However, it was a sort of thing the public thought Greeley would have said, and anyway, who was John Babson Soule?