4

To some extent, I think this was an issue that was raised when this question was trending: When was the first print usage of chop your own wood and it will warm you twice?

Occasionally I've run into similar questions regarding the accurate original version or source of a quote that I've seen that conflicts between sources. It seems to me like a question that has a correct answer, so it's not too broad or primarily opinion based. It can also be a valid question after conducting research. Yet I was thinking about posting such a question and it smelled like something that would be closed fast.

Since I'm here, I'll go ahead and reveal the hypothetical question:


A Mark Twain quote is shown in various forms, and I'm wondering if one of them is paraphrased and the other is a true quote. As far as I can tell, neither source specifies the text this quote is drawn from, so I'm unsure where to look to verify the accurate original.

Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

I promise I'm not fishing for an answer on Meta. Rather, I'm wondering whether questions of this sort are acceptable to the community or if they would or should be closed.

  • 2
    There's also a Skeptics Stack Exchange, where you can ask for whether something was really said by someone. – NVZ Jul 5 '17 at 4:50
  • @NVZ - I agree, I have a similar question on an expression generally attributed to Dickens though there is no evidence he ever used it. These questions are probably better asked on Skeptics SE. – user66974 Jul 5 '17 at 4:56
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    From "The Czar's Soliloquy". Neither of the sources you cited is accurate (or reliable). "Remember this, take it to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it." – JEL Jul 5 '17 at 8:22
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    Hadn't this topic, source of quotations, been raised here on meta ELU before? – Mitch Jul 5 '17 at 11:44
  • @Mitch if this is a duplicate, my bad, honest mistake. – RaceYouAnytime Jul 5 '17 at 11:55
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    Who First said questions the answer is mixed - a 'no' and a mixed yes/no. – Mitch Jul 5 '17 at 13:14
  • ...which is to say I don't think there is firm establishment of on-topicality. Provenance of quotations are often asked here and if they're totally obvious then they are often closed as gen ref. But sometimes it is not obvious or established and then I think it is on-topic. – Mitch Jul 5 '17 at 13:21
  • As an aside, if a quote site doesn't include where the quote appeared (BrainyQuote doesn't, Wikiquote does), you should question both the quote and the attribution. BrainyQuote is particularly bad - there's no curation at all as far as I can tell. It's more like a "meme quotes" site. – ColleenV Jul 5 '17 at 20:04
  • @Josh I asked Merriam-Webster about the Dickens one - short answer, it wasn't him, although the longer answer is more interesting! – marcellothearcane Jul 7 '17 at 19:23
  • @marcellothearcane - the question is off-topic, sorry I shouldn't have posted it. My fault, sorry for the trouble. – user66974 Jul 11 '17 at 18:50
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    @Josh The earliest use was French in 1892, when “il ne faut jamais dire ‘jamais’” appears in several different publications reviewing 'The Diplomatic Reminiscences of Lord Augustus Loftus'. Lord Augustus was a British diplomat who spent much of his career in Prussia, and one story he relates concerns an encounter with the elderly Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian ambassador to France who helped to negotiate the post-Napoleonic European order. Apparently, he responded to a suggestion by Augustus that something would never happen with, “Mon cher, il ne faut jamais dire ‘jamais’.” - just FYI! – marcellothearcane Jul 11 '17 at 19:53
  • The previous comment is not my research, but thanks to Joanne Despres of the Merriam-Webster Editorial Department. – marcellothearcane Jul 11 '17 at 19:53
  • @marcellothearcane - thanks for your research. I do appreciate. – user66974 Jul 11 '17 at 20:02
8

Can't say for sure whether questions of that sort are strictly on-topic at ELU.

Perhaps, if you'd like to know whether a famous quote was misattributed to someone, or challenge the authenticity of something, try Skeptics Stack Exchange. Its Tour page says:

We're working together to build a library of detailed answers challenging unreferenced notable claims, pseudoscience and biased results.

And,

Ask about the accuracy of public claims made in the media or elsewhere.

One of the top used tags is for quotes. Some top voted questions are:

  1. Did Einstein say this about his marriage?
  2. Did Bill Gates say that vaccines and health care could reduce the population growth by 10-15%?
  3. Did Einstein say this quote about war & patriotism?
  • That seems like a wise idea, thanks. – RaceYouAnytime Jul 5 '17 at 11:22
2

I would say that they're not necessarily off-topic here. Subject to the usual expectations about doing some research first, I would prefer not to shut these questions out (even if they are potentially also on-topic elsewhere1). Some reasons for this preference:

  1. As noted in the question, these questions are about the usage of the English language; present an actual problem/question; are not primarily opinion based, theoretically have an answer; and can be subjected to the usual due-diligence requirements for research; to ensure they are not easily answered by a standard reference. In other words, they don't clearly violate any of our standard reasons for closing.

  2. From a purely subjective viewpoint, I find these questions (or more accurately, their answers) to be interesting.

  3. As a site that is partially for etymologists we likely have folks with the expertise and resources to answer these kinds of questions.

  4. It's hard to imagine how we would draw the line between etymology of set phrases (which is pretty clearly on-topic) and provenance of unattributed/misattributed "quotations".

    • Does the distinction just turn on whether the line is commonly cited as a quotation? That is, if someone started saying "like Mark Twain once said, 'whatever floats your boat'" would a question about the origin of the phrase suddenly be off-limits?

    • Or does it depend on whether it actually is an attributable quotation? If the latter, how do we know whether the question is on-topic until after it has been asked and answered? Should a question about the sports insult "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" be closed because it appears to have originated in a political speech?

    • This is especially problematic because many aphorisms that might once have just been "well-known sayings" are now spuriously attributed to whoever sounds plausible; one example that generated an upvoted question and answers is "boredom punctuated by moments of terror". There are also examples of traditional phrases being modified by celebrities, and thus becoming attached to that celebrity, as in "if ifs and buts were candy and nuts" or the chopping wood example listed in the question here.


1 Note that "is on-topic at another Stack Exchange" is explicitly NOT a reason to close a question that is otherwise on-topic in the SE where it is asked. From the MetaSE FAQ:

  • Don't migrate for the sake of migration. We only migrate questions because they are off-topic on the original site. It is perfectly possible for a question to be on-topic on multiple sites, but that is not a reason to migrate it elsewhere, unless the OP requests migration. As a general rule, if someone asks a question here, and it's on-topic here, it should stay here.

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