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The art of misquotation

To be immortal is to be misquoted. Repeatedly, and often at length. It is to have words stuffed into your mouth by total strangers. It is to be parodied and caricatured and have your face shoved onto T-shirts.

world Updated: Jan 21, 2012 22:20 IST

To be immortal is to be misquoted. Repeatedly, and often at length. It is to have words stuffed into your mouth by total strangers. It is to be parodied and caricatured and have your face shoved onto T-shirts.

It is to be taken out of context. It is to trend on Twitter for hours before everyone realises you didn’t say what they thought you said. When you are immortal, people sit down with you on imaginary panels and try to conjure up your thoughts on contemporary issues.

“The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living,” WH Auden wrote on the death of Yeats.

These days, everyone says a great deal, but not much of it is memorable. Twitter exists, words writ in hot water.

Like Twain and Lincoln, other behemoths of American letters, Dr Martin Luther King Jr is always a first recourse for quotation, everywhere from cynical name-dropping in SAT essays “In the immortal words of Dr King” to showing up to add vital grace to political speech.

We misquote because we love. We misquote because we have stopped memorising things.

Still, misquotation is a form of flattery. We seek King out for words because he was one of the rare people privileged to say and do great things. Few can manage one of the two.

The only thing worse than being misquoted is not being quoted at all, to misquote Oscar Wilde.