Did They Really Say That: Getting Our Quotations Right

AHA President William Cronon recently shared a link to an article in the Atlantic that vividly reminds us how many oft-quoted aphorisms are inaccurate, and in some cases bear little resemblance to the original statement.This reminder to check before we quote is especially useful in the age of powerful search engines that make checking so easy.  I was reminded of this last fall while writing a conference paper.  I had completed my essay and was pulling together footnotes, including a citation to the frequently quoted observation by the late-19th century sociologist William Graham Sumner, “stateways cannot change folkways.”  Indeed, the phrase was so frequently quoted that it had become a cliché by the 1950s, and was invoked to justify limited federal intervention in the enforcement of the 1954 Brown desegregation decision by the Supreme Court.  The only problem was that Sumner had never penned such a phrase.  He did say “legislation cannot make mores.”  Almost the same.  But not quite.

If you have quoted Sumner on this, don’t feel badly.  So did Rayford Logan.  And C. Vann Woodward.  You’re in good company.

And if you are of a mind to check “legislation cannot make mores,” please note that if you do it through Google Books you are likely to be asked whether you really mean “legislation cannot make smores.”  Something to munch on as you read this cautionary piece in the Atlantic.

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