Guest column | Jerry Cowling

Out of the mouths of famous people

Anyone who has been to one of my storytelling sessions knows I like to say, "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." Imagine my mortification recently when I discovered I didn't make that up at all. Mark Twain did.

This is not the only instance when I think I'm clever enough to create a snappy turn of phrase. For example, I also tell people, "Don't let facts get in the way of the truth." Not mine. Maya Angelou said it first.

I'm not the only person to make this mistake. Of all people, Helen Keller got caught writing a poem that had already been written. It's not like she was eavesdropping and decided to take the words as her own. Her conclusion was that someone recited the poem to her when she was a child. As an adult when she thought she was composing it, she was just remembering it. Needless to say, she was as humiliated as I am now with my mistake.

When you think about it, all the good axioms were created by Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin or William Shakespeare. Just who did these people think they were, hogging all the best stuff for themselves? It's hard to get credit for anything these days.

In addition to claiming ownership of bits of wisdom, I have also embarrassed myself by misquoting these smart guys.

For example, I gave Alexander Pope credit for writing, "The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell."

It seems Pope didn't say that. John Milton wrote that chestnut for Paradise Lost. Even more embarrassing was the fact that Milton had those words coming out of the mouth of the devil himself. So this sentence is not meant as words to live by, but as words of encouragement to the folks already living in hell.

Speaking of Alexander Pope, I also recently discovered that I had been misquoting one of his actual sayings most of my life. I thought the expression was "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." He actually said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing." It seems most words coming out of my mouth are dangerous things.

I shouldn't be let out of the house without a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations under my arm. I can take solace in the fact that all those guys are dead, so if I take credit and/or misquote them it's not a big deal. What they can't know won't hurt them. Of course, I do have to be careful about Maya Angelou. She's still alive and could come after me. She seems like such a nice person on television that I can't imagine that she would take me to task too harshly.

Another way to look at my misappropriation of quotations is to acknowledge that it is really good for me. After all, who can be impressed with something an old guy in Brooksville says? Who's he to think he's so smart? But if they know I am quoting the best writers who ever lived, then they can think, "Wow, he's spent a lot of time studying literature. He must know a lot."

At least that's my defense right now. Maybe I'll think of a better excuse later. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Darn it, I did it again.

Jerry Cowling is a freelance writer and storyteller living in Brooksville.

Out of the mouths of famous people 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 4:27pm]

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