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Great Tag Lines Donít Get Misquoted: World-Class Quotability for Your Company Slogan

by Marcia Yudkin

"Elementary, my dear Watson." - Sherlock Holmes
"Discretion is the better part of valor." - Shakespeare
"Thereís a sucker born every minute." - P.T. Barnum

According to Ralph Keyesí entertaining book Nice Guys Finish Seventh, all the above well-known quotes (and hundreds of others) are spurious. 

Nowhere in Sir Arthur Conan Doyleís volumes of Sherlock Holmes novels does the great detective say "Elementary, my dear Watson." In one of the books, Holmes does reply to Watson with the retort, "Elementary." And in a 1929 Sherlock Holmes film, that riposte was embellished into "Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary." People assume the phrase came from Conan Doyle, but it did not, not in that form.

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Shakespeare did relate discretion and valor in his play Henry IV, but the actual wording there was in inverse order: "The better part of valor is discretion."

And as for the quote from P.T. Barnum, the closest thing the legendary showman actually said was "The people like to be humbugged."

Keyes spends nearly 200 pages tracking down, documenting and attempting to explain popular misquotes and misattributions of quotes. Letís leave aside the instances where something was actually said about someone rather than by the person, such as "Any man who hates dogs and children canít be all bad," stated about comedian W.C. Fields by Leo Rosten when introducing him at a Los Angeles banquet, as well as those attributed to a more famous contemporary, like "You canít trust anyone over thirty," often attributed to Abbie Hoffman but actually voiced by another sixties activist, Jack Weinberg. 

Instead, letís look at quotes whose wording got rearranged or revised during a grand game of "Telephone" played by the public over time.

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For example: 

The stronger, more striking version wins out. On camera, Mae West actually said to Cary Grant, "Why donít you come up sometime and see me?" This morphed in collective memory to "Why donít you come up and see me sometime?" Important words, like "sometime" here, belong either at the beginning or the end of a line.

The more conversational word order sticks. Shakespeareís Hamlet says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method inít." Most people quote it as "Thereís method in his madness."

Complications get ironed out. Henry Ford, for example, said, "History is more or less bunk," which is remembered simply as "History is bunk." Many people quote the Bible as saying, "Money is the root of all evil," when in fact I Timothy 6:10 says, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

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The self-contained version prevails. As most film buffs know, the movie "Casablanca" does not include the line, "Play it again, Sam." Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, says, "Play it, Sam. Play ĎAs Time Goes By.í" A bit later Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, tells Sam, "Play it!" People quote the line as "Play it again, Sam" because that version includes more context and encapsulates the meaning of the scene.

If youíre hoping to craft a tag line that lasts the way you wrote it, then make sure youíve chosen the catchiest word order, eliminated complications and included relevant context. Test it out on people and have them repeat it back to you from memory. If everyone mangles it or gets it wrong, the tag line may need further polishing. If it comes back as you wrote it, it may be ready for posterity.

Copyright 2011 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.

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