Everyone has been admirably civilised about the pocket controversy concerning that quote on the medal for the upcoming Dublin Marathon. To honour the 100th anniversary of WB Yeats receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, the organisers have embossed the poet’s portrait on their gong above a surprisingly life-affirming quote: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t met yet.”
I was not aware this cheering tea-towel slogan had ever been attributed to Yeats. If asked for a source I might have turned first to The Simpsons. During A Streetcar Named Marge, an episode from the fourth season, the family’s blue-haired matriarch plays Blanche DuBois in a musical adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s best-known play. The big production number, referencing Blanche’s famous reliance on the “company of strangers”, ends with Marge promising, “Here’s a tip ... you won’t regret.” The chorus follows up with, “A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!”
Anyway, it looks as if the librettist of Oh Streetcar! owed no debt to any pillars of the Irish literary revival. Susan O’Keeffe, director of the Yeats Society Sligo, declared herself “pretty certain” that the quote did not emanate from Yeats. Clearly a good sport, she went on to say the organisers “set out to do a good thing, and they have done a good thing”. Successful runners will still receive medals with the heart-warming aphorism.
It has been “widely attributed” to that poet. Write it once on social media and, in seconds, the yarn will be spread throughout the world
It is good that, for once, nobody is turning a humble misunderstanding into a national catastrophe. One is, nonetheless, prompted to wonder how such insecure attributions bed down in the culture. A naive fellow might have assumed the internet would put an end to such confusion. Now everyone has instant access to a thousand points of reference, it is the work of a minute to confirm or debunk any such claim. The reliable Quote Investigator website was, for instance, “unable to find substantive support” for a link between Yeats and the current quote. Yet here it is in a “paid post” by Guinness on the New York Times website. “This famous quote, widely attributed to Irish poet William Butler Yeats, must have referred to an Irish pub,” the text reads. This is not exactly untrue. It has been “widely attributed” to that poet. Write it once on social media and, in seconds, the yarn will be spread throughout the world.
Our heads groan with misquotes that long predate the internet. Most people now have some idea that Marie Antoinette didn’t really say “Let them eat cake”. The original quote, actually referencing brioche, first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, nearly a quarter of a century before the French Revolution. Fewer people may realise that Voltaire didn’t come up with “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Evelyn Beatrice Hall looks to have dreamed that up in the early 20th century. More stubborn still is Albert Einstein’s supposed musings on mental health. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he is often claimed to have said. He almost certainly said no such thing. Indeed, Quote Investigator has failed to come up with any variation on the line before 1981.
The proverbial man in the pub has a lot to answer for. Since the days when we lived in huts and ate dung, such fellows have been around to tell us “interesting facts” that fall apart under the gentlest scrutiny (something too rarely applied). These yarns get so embedded in the collective psyche that it becomes psychically painful to hear them debunked. It is now difficult to find anyone who doesn’t believe that Ring a Ring o’ Roses refers to grim fates in the Black Death. Yet there is no evidence of anyone spouting this folk etymology before the second World War. Most experts dismiss it as bunkum.
Type a dubious quote into a search engine and you will find endless graphics featuring that line plastered over superficially attractive landscapes
That man in the pub now has access to an audience of millions. His saloon bar stretches digitally from Australasia to the icy wastes of northern Siberia. He has bottomless support from figurative fellow revellers. Type a dubious quote into a search engine and you will find endless graphics featuring that line plastered over superficially attractive landscapes. Here is the “Yeats” quote over a spooky forest and over a desert road. Here is the “Voltaire” quote over a hot-air balloon and over a chilly Alpine valley.
Just watch me. I am going to blame “nice weather for ducks” on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and plaster the attribution over a photo of those birds playing with a wet kitten in a sandpit. Give it a week and it will be as enthusiastically believed as the epidemiological explanation for Ring a Ring o’ Roses. This is where we’ve got to.