Thursday, April 05, 2007

Quote Patrol

"Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds," Keith Olbermann recited this week.

Uh, no. People often erroneously say "small," but the otherwise truth-squadding MSNBC personality also managed to miss the main point of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Not every consistency is foolish. Write it down.

(For all you reference-book addicts, the recently published Yale Book of Quotations sounds like a promising alternative to the old familiar Bartlett's.)

6 comments:

Doug Fisher said...

Thank you for noting the correct version. It's the first thing I put up in class each semester -- emphasizing exactly what you did. Followed, of course, by the observation that as copy editors, we try not to be foolish.

Stephen Jones said...

And of course both of you fall into the very error Emerson is attacking!

Why should we quote the exact words, except for adherence to the very foolish consistency Emerson is attacking?

And my dear doug, by worshipping consistency you are being foolish will-nilly as far as Emerson is concerned. To quote a little further down the essay
I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward.

Copy editors are neither little statesmen, nor philosophers nor divines, though they have pretension enough to be all three, but let us not let the hobgoblin be invoked to exclude them from the accusation, whether Romanians or Rumanians!

Linda said...

Dude, I don't think any amount of calling copy editors pretentious will, or should, convince us that quoting people accurately is "foolish."

Stephen Jones said...

Careful though. If you say according to Emerson "a foolish......" then you must quote accurately, as this is a matter of fact, not of consistency.

But if you're using the phrase without attribution there is no such constraint, and to insist on the exact words would be falling for the very trap Emerson was attacking.

Bill said...

It's very simple: Emerson was not attacking consistency. If you leave out "foolish," you are misrepresenting his opinion. If you're so hep on misquoting the "little" part, fine. Knock yourself out.

Stephen Jones said...

It's very simple: Emerson was not attacking consistency.

He certainly was. Have you not read the passage?

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency.

By swapping 'little' for 'small', 'petty', and 'puny' we are actually following the advice Emerson gave in his essay.
The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.

By using homonyms we are actually making the overarching meaning clearer.

Perhaps we could adapt Emerson, and say that he is against conformity to the letter, but in favour of conformity to the spirit.