Who Said That?

The Yale Book of Quotations sets the
record straight on who said what.


By Fred Shapiro


As Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens offered the world a number of remarkable witticisms. But today, we often give him credit for coming up with some tidbits of wisdom that – as revealed by careful new research – were in truth first uttered by other people. In the past, writers and speakers often made the assumption that if an expression was wise and witty, it could safely be attributed to Twain or Abraham Lincoln. But with the advent of Internet-based research and the modernized, combined talents of major universities and research institutions, some scholars are finding surprising new answers to the question, Who said that?

One such scholar is Fred R. Shapiro, who has researched and documented more than 12,000 phrases and famous sayings that can now – surprisingly – be attributed to people other than originally thought. This editor of The Yale Book of Quotations presents many new attributions that we, as speakers, need to know about, so when we quote someone in a speech, we give credit to the right person.

Of course, it’s possible (and in some cases, probable) that these quotes were restated by the formerly credited famous speakers. But they weren’t the originators of the quotes. Perhaps Lincoln repeated something that he had read, and through the years those concepts were simply attributed to him. Or perhaps Twain paraphrased a story he’d heard and it was later credited to him. After all, how many of us had ever heard of Benedict J. Goltra? Ultimately, the question changes from Who said that? to Who said it...first?

Now with the help of the Toastmaster, you can learn some ­corrected attributions and apply them to your speeches right away. The magazine has teamed with Shapiro
to ­provide our readers with the latest discoveries in who said what...and who said it first. From time to time, turn the pages of the Toastmaster and you’ll see some familiar quotes...with new names attached.

Here are some quotes on the subject of clarity, as verified by Fred Shapiro:

“The most important quality in diction is clarity.”
— Aristotle, Poetics (4th century B.C.)

“The chief merit of language is clearness.”
— Galen, On the Natural Faculties (2nd century B.C.)

“Better a slip on the pavement than a slip of the tongue.”
— Ecclesiasticus 20:18

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., “Urania: A Rhymed Lesson” (1846)

“Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair-trigger balances, when a false or
misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act.”
— James Thurber, Lanterns and Lances (1961)

“There is no saying without a double meaning.” 
— African proverb

“Every word has three explanations and three interpretations.”
— Irish proverb

“Nothing can be so clearly and carefully expressed
that it cannot be utterly misinterpreted.”

— Fred W. Householder, Linguistic Speculations (1971)

“If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.”
— Alan Greenspan, speech to Congress, 1987

“I worry incessantly that I might be too clear.”
Alan Greenspan, quoted in the New York Times, June 25, 1995 


Fred Shapiro is a world-recognized authority on quotations and on reference in general. He edited the award-winning Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, and his research has been the subject of numerous articles. Shapiro has also edited four other books, and he serves as associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School.

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