Stop Misquoting Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. Start Listening and Reading.

Consider the misquote. It lies in that same realm as citing fake news or reading only the headline. Misquoting is certainly nothing new, but the internet allows a fake quote to be retweeted a thousand times before the truth has even clicked send.

I’ve written about this before, of course. In the summer of 2015, I wrote a blog post called Six Things Hemingway Never Said, in which I listed a series of fake, inaccurate, misappropriated, or apocryphal Hemingway quotes and their origins.

leopard
“Live. Laugh. Love”

Since then, of course, it has only gotten worse. Consider the following list of quotes, provided by Google when one searches for ernest hemingway quotes:

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-12-21-40-pmI won’t catalogue all of these, but let’s say that they range from context-free to paraphrased to nonsense. The seventh is a misquote of a line he said during a famous article by Dorothy Parker in The New Yorker, while the last one on the list sounds like the social media status update of a moody teen.

Why do we misquote?

What is it about the internet and misquoting? What drives one to repeat something that someone else said without bothering to make sure that person said it?  Why would you put something on your Facebook wall, why tweet it, why make it into a cute photo for Instagram without confirming that, yes, it’s a real quote?

Of course, it’s not only social media. The U. S. Postal Service misquoted Maya Angelou on a stamp. Megan Fox has a Shakespeare misquote inked on her skin. The Big Short opens with something Mark Twain never said. The list goes on and on.

I think people misquote for two reasons, always working together: a) they think something sounds smart, cool, or profound, and b) they’re lazy or careless. There is no reason to misquote something or someone unless you just really don’t care enough to try, or don’t care enough to be accurate.

What Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway never said.

Sometimes these misquotes go viral, like when the world thought that Martin Luther King, Jr wasn’t happy about Bin Laden’s death. Other times, these misquotes are quiet pieces of confusion that float around the internet, appearing in Reddit threads or Goodreads pages.

For me, there is one example that stands above all and infuriates me, because it’s the monstrous mutation of two real quotes, two beautiful quotes:

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” 

I can’t remember where I first saw this, and whether it was attributed to Cohen or Hemingway, but I immediately knew it was nonsense because I recognized the first sentence as the lost child of a Hemingway quote, and the second half as a piece of a Leonard Cohen lyric.

Of course, here’s the real Cohen, from “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And the real Hemingway, from A Farewell to Arms:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Lucky for us, I’m not the only person who cares about this. Google we are all broken thats how the light gets in and you’ll find the first link is to a Quote Investigator article about this misquote and its origin, including how the two quotes rose and converged.

But here’s what bothers me, seeing this nonsense quote getting bandied about while the truth is in position one of Google: This means that, these days, every time someone shares this particular misquote, they have not bothered to check its veracity on even the laziest level.

Oh, but does it matter, you ask? How many people are actual repeating this nonsense?

Let’s take a look:

  • The misquote, attributed to Hemingway, has 273 likes on Goodreads.
  • The misquote, attributed to Hemingway, got 528 upvotes on the quotes subreddit.
  • Someone put it on a mug, giving credit, again, to Ernest.
  • Glenn Beck tweeted it, attributing it first to no one and second to Hemingway.
  • You can look it up on a search engine to see all the blogs that have written inspirational schlock on this misquote.
  • And then here is just a sample of all the Pinterest-friendly images and greeting cards that display it:

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 5.16.00 PM.png

So what are we to do about misquotes?

I have a very simple solution. It’s the same solution to beating fake news: slow down.

If you think you really like a song lyric, try to find the song that it’s from. Listen to it.

If you think you really like a quote by a famous author, read a book by that author.

If you read a crazy news article, look at who wrote the article, and where you are reading it.

We were once taught not to trust strangers on the internet. Now strangers on the internet are repeating stolen jokes, making up quotes, and telling you how to vote.

Stop living this way. Make the smallest bit of effort. Be your own person. Research. Take pride in the words you repeat, and give the respect to attribute them accurately.

screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-5-21-33-pm
Don’t do this.

And don’t repeat a Mark Twain quote unless you read it in a Mark Twain book, because otherwise it’s probably bullshit.

 

“I mean,” Ernest Hemingway said, “grace under pressure.”

For those wondering. At the beginning of this, I mentioned that “courage is grace under pressure” is inaccurate.

Here is its accurate origin, from Dorothy Parker’s 1929 article about Hemingway:

That brings me to the point which I have been trying to reach all this time: Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage–his phrase that, it seems to me, makes Barrie’s “Courage is immortality” sound like one of the more treble trilling of Tinker Bell. Mr. Hemingway did not use the term “courage.” Ever the euphemist, he referred to the quality as “guts,” and he was attributing its possession to an absent friend.

“Now just a minute,” somebody said, for it was one of those argumentative evenings. “Listen. Look here a minute. Exactly what do you mean by ‘guts’?”

“I mean,” Ernest Hemingway said, “grace under pressure.”

That race is his. The pressure, I suppose, comes in, gratis, under the heading of the Artist’s Reward.

-Dorothy Parker, The New Yorker

Is it too difficult to read such a long excerpt? Does it not make a good ankle tattoo? Is it too long to tweet?

cohen.jpg
Arguably the last man to rock a fedora with grace.

There are so many good books to read in this world and so much good music to listen to. There are so many people to meet, things to see, things to do. Think of how much better the world could be if we slowed down and started listening to one another. Think of how much better things would be if no one misquoted Leonard Cohen and everyone listened to his music.

The choice is yours. Are you going to be part of the problem? Or are you going to start checking the accuracy of quotes before you repeat them?

Enjoy this article? Check out Fan Theories from D. F. Lovett or The Moonborn in e-book or paperback.

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16 thoughts on “Stop Misquoting Leonard Cohen and Ernest Hemingway. Start Listening and Reading.

  1. Thank You!!!! I HATE when people attribute quotes to the wrong people. Or even worse don’t give anyone any credit at all- basically implying that they wrote it themselves. There’s really no reason why people cannot give credit to the real author.

  2. Hana

    I read the “quote” on Instagram today. By Cohen. I listened to the song and now I wanted to share it as well. I found the other one by Hemingway and I was searching which book does it come from. And I found this article. Thank you!

  3. Double-check your spelling on A Farewell to Arms— you left out an “e” once.
    Thanks for your message, I’m glad when people want the truth in things.
    ofoneheartblog.wordpress.com

  4. Anonymous

    Great article. If others that read it are intrigued enough to read Hemingway or listen to Cohen then you will have performed a great service.

  5. Flora

    Thank you for the article, it’s really helpful! Could you help me with this quote?
    “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.”
    I see this one everywhere on the internet, and I’m really curious: is it real or another misquote? Does it really come from “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway”?

    1. Hi Flora – I dug around and can’t find anyone else who has attempted to verify this one. “Letters of Ernest Hemingway” is pretty vague, and could easily have been tacked onto this quote when an actual source couldn’t be found (or didn’t exist.)

      However, I’ve believed that quotes were fake before that turned out to be legitimate, so I don’t want to say it’s definitely a misquote without doing further research. The one other reason I suspect it might be a misquote is because it seems to be a mash-up of some of his other famous passages. I also question whether Hemingway would’ve used a semi-colon or if he would have opened a sentence with the world “ironically.”

      So I’m leaning toward no, but there’s an outside chance it is real and in a collection of letters out there somewhere.

  6. Jake Spoon

    I understand the problem with misquoting, but I happen to appreciate this bastardization of the Hemingway quote: “Life breaks everyone, and afterward some are stronger at the broken places.” To me (a person who perceives himself as having been broken–in combat and in love, to name a couple of ways), there is beauty and truth in that misquote. So what is the solution? To simply abandon the thought? To attribute it to myself? To attribute it by saying something like, “misquoted from Hemingway?” I don’t think the solution is to simply abandon the thought, or to be denied the ability to share it. In a sense I have taken Hemingway’s idea, as expressed in his original quote, and made it personal to me. There should be a way for me to legitimately think the thought and share it without being derided as either a plagiarist or a misquoter of Hemingway.

    Maybe Hemingway wouldn’t be as upset as you seem to be about a reader modifying his ideas to make them personal.

    1. Hi Jake, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think there is middle ground here. The original line of “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places” is not terribly different from the varied version you like. I agree that you can’t abandon the thought, especially if it’s one you find strength in.

      The most important thing here, in my opinion, is that you know the distinction between the original quote and the quote you have a personal connection to. If you were to tattoo the misquote on your body or hang a plaque of it on your wall, you wouldn’t be doing so out of ignorance, but out of intention.

      I can’t say what Hemingway would think about people misquoting him. But like most writers, he’d probably appreciate people like you who took the time to read his work and have thoughtful conversations about it.

      Thanks again for your comment! It’s a good one.

  7. Lauren Corley

    I was googling Hemingway quotes tonight because I find him especially intriguing. I saw the one about we are all broken that’s how the light gets in. Myself being far from a literary brain thought wow that does not sound like Hemingway. I looked into it and came across this article. I absolutely loved every word of it!!! Social media has really made it so easy for people to remain ignorant and oblivious. No one fact checks anything “it was on Facebook so it must be factual”. So yes there are others like you that it matters to. Thank you!!!

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