“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
— This quote was not said by Einstein.
“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”
— That one was also not said by Albert Einstein.
When I browse Pinterest or scroll Instagram I’m more likely to see an Einstein quote than not. And it always makes me want to flame-comment the #girlboss or #hustlehero for not making sure that the quote was real before blasting it out to all the 3.1k fans they bought.
I try not to, but it’s a daily struggle. So I’m writing this article so that all of you wise Medium readers can pass this on to your friends and coworkers who clearly need to see it. Please, do the world (and me) this favor.
EINSTEIN DIDN’T SAY THAT!
I’m going to discuss some useful tools to discover when a quote was said, who it was said by, and whether it was ever said at all. But first, I’d like to focus on Einstein.
I would bet money that the majority of English-language quotes pinned to the wrong person are thrust into Einstein’s mouth. The truth is, if you see a short, sarcastic or witty English quotation, it likely was never said by the man. Here’s why:
Einstein was a flowery, verbose writer. He was a good writer, don’t get me wrong. Click that link above if you’d like to read his actually-quite-awesome poetry. But on the Faulkner to Hemingway spectrum, Albert’s use of adjectives and adverbs would have made Ernest choke on his chilled mojito. Here’s the actual Einstein quote that likely inspired that second quote in bold above about tech making us all idiots:
“I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives, a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”
— Einstein, in a letter to Otto Juliusburger, 1948
Also, it surprised me to learn that Einstein never became fluent in English, according to one of his most respected biographers and translators, Alice Calaprice. She points out that he didn’t come to America until he was in his 50’s and that German was a much better language for math at the time. There was no need for him to learn English at an age where it would have been easily picked up. If you see an English quote from him now, 65 years after his death, it’s almost guaranteed to have been interpreted (or even tweaked) by at least one translator.
Short quotes in English are unlikely to be Einstein’s. If it’s long, in German, and contains descriptive language or unique metaphors, it’s much more likely to be Einstein’s.
Of course, then it’s also less likely to be Instagrammable.
HOW TO FIND A QUOTE THAT WILL PROTECT YOUR POWERPOINT AUTHORITY: the “trust, but verify” method.
First, when you have found a good quote, Google it.
If your results are all poorly-made picto-quotes pasted together by Pinteresters who don’t ever employ the correct “your/you’re/ur,” you should be especially cautious.
The BEST thing to do is to use quotes from books penned by the person you wish to quote. Goodreads is a great resource to track down those types of quotes down to the tome and page number. Quoteable writers include Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Anaïs Nin, Maya Angelou (except this one, it’s likely fake), and Desmond Tutu.
Goodreads should list at least the book where the quote is from. That’s why it was easy to tell the Maya Angelou quote was fake. Most of her beautiful words can be traced to a specific poem, not just book.
Second, make sure your quote hasn’t been debunked on Snopes, or even better, QuoteInvestigator.
QI is an amazing resource and I bought the book when it came out in order to support the website. This site has saved my tail on more than one occasion when I thought Gandhi totally must have said that.
Use QuoteInvestigator early, use QuoteInvestigator often.
Finally, if the quote is perfect, if the sentiment is just so perfect for that individual to have said, if it’s just so relevant to today’s society despite being said so far in the past… it’s probably too good to be true.
No one*** is as witty as the editing of many hands over many years. Writers and translators and newspaper reporters will all get their overly creative hands on a good quote and it will become great over time.
For this reason, if you agree with a quote and after a thorough Google search you’re still not sure who was its original author, it’s better to leave off any name than to be wrong. If you feel you need to distance yourself from the quote’s sentiment, credit Unknown, Anonymous, or A Common American Saying.
***With the singular exception of Oscar Wilde. The man would have killed it on Twitter.
Also, writers or politicians will often tie a good quote to a different speaker in order to make the quote more meaningful. If the quote is about science, technology, or intelligence? Einstein said it! If the quote is about design, efficiency, or computers? Steve Jobs once wrote it in an intra-office email! If the quote is about fighting against impossible odds? Insert your local hero’s name here!
Especially be wary if a saying relates to a current hot-button topic and involves an unlikely suspect. For example, Malcolm X isn’t likely to have said many things about the virtues of patience or everyone getting along despite racial tensions — that man was on a mission, and so is whoever misquotes him deliberately.
CHECK YOUR WHY’S BEFORE EXPORTING YOUR SLIDES
If you are relying heavily on quotes in a presentation or on a website, you should also take a moment to ask yourself if it’s a good tactic given your goals.
If you are not already considered an expert in your topic, a thoroughly accurate quotation from a known expert that backs up your position will lend you authority.
However, if your word is already accepted as fact, a quote from someone else could instead borrow authority from you. You might be seen to be validating their position instead of vice versa.
So use quotations wisely.
IN CONCLUSION: PRINT AND TACK THIS UP IN YOUR BREAK ROOM
Please pass this message along to the people who need to hear it.
So that they’ll know. And in the words of G.I. Joe:
“Knowing is half the battle”
The other half, of course, is verifying that knowledge before you pass it on.