The other day I was at an event where someone was answering a question about what they do to be such an effective public speaker. They hihglighted the need for taking time to prepare, with the shorter the presentation, often the longer the time it takes to prepare it.
They then used a famous story and gave an attribution. This made me smile, as I recognise how often so many quotes are misattributed, and took me to wondering why. So, first the story, then the attribution thought.
On being complemented for writing a erudite, entertaining and educational letter to a national newspaper, Mark Twain said: “Thank you. If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter one.”
A great and powerful story to make a point, however on that recent evening the person telling the story (this being in the UK, not the US) attributed it to Winston Churchill.
Mark Twain and Winston Churchill (along with Einstein and Shakespeare) seem to me to have more quotes attributed to them than anyone else. However, though each of them said amazing and very quotable things, very few of the quotes attributed to them they actually said !
This got me to thinking about WHY we attribute quotes to someone other than the person who first came up with the thought.
I have two thoughts in mind about this.
First, I often say “there is no such thing as an original idea“, by which I mean that those who come up with ideas are typically those most curious about learning and so, as my friend Steve Moore might say, they are “magpie intellects” and so are always pulling ideas from the past, then tweaking, iterating, evolving them. So much of human progress is evolution rather than revolution,
Second, with the pace of life and change, we are narrow rather than wide in our learnings, so as we want to be able to identify with the person behind a quote, it is easier (unconsciously) to use an attribution that the audience would know.
Oh, and the source of this quote ? I’d say it will go back to the earliest days of writing on papyrus or parchment, but let’s go with what I found on Google.
Blaise Pascal, a french polymath of the mid 1600s, most famous for his part in evolving mathematical theories (oh, and for computer science students, does Pascal ring a bell ? )
His quote :
“Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”
It literally translates to
“I made this one longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.”
as opposed to :
“If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter one.”
One last point I find interesting is the translation of “loisir” to “time”. I wrote recently in “Movies with Meaning – The Meaning of Time” about how our relationship to time is personal and can be shifted based on many factors. One of them in that post (from the movie Arrival) is around how the very form of language can shift meaning of time for us. As someone with a modicum of understanding of French, loisir does not have the same feeling in the meaning as the english word leisure, it more means the feeling of the luxury of feeling one has time and space.
Ah, and so I muse.
I guess.. If I’d had more time I’d have written a shorter post !
Also published on Medium.