I was searching for a quote to add to the back of my business cards; I found a mistake. A journalism professor would have called my almost-selected quotation, incorrectly attributed to Mother Teresa, a “fact error.”
“Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but Mother Teresa did not say this. When I cross-referenced the quote online, I found MotherTeresa.org has an entire page dedicated to correcting these types of mistakes. Misattribution is not new, and it’s not confined to the Internet. The quote was printed in a book published in 1998.
Williamson and Mandela
I like to cross-check my quotations because one of my favorites has been attributed to two people.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…” The quote is from Marianne Williamson’s popular book, A Return to Love, but sometimes appears with Nelson Mandela’s name instead.
Many people talk or write about living up to your potential. Here’s one quotation commonly attributed to Mandela: “There is no passion to be found in playing small… in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” But, assuming that shorter quote does belong to him, I’ve seen no evidence that he was “inspired by” Williamson as some online sources suggest. (As I type these words, you can access a variety of these opinions by searching for the first half of the Mandela quote with Williamson’s name instead.)
Slogans vs. Quotes
I’m passionate about using words to inspire myself and others. Even my newest hobby, making greeting cards, invites me to share inspirational thoughts daily. My Instagram account highlights these recent paper crafts and favorite motivational messages.
Whether I’m exploring a rubber stamp catalog or a popular quotations site, I sometimes notice a few quotes are not in the right “voice.” I call this aggressive interpretation “sloganizing,” and The New York Times labeled the practice “tweaking” in a 2011 editorial, Falser Words Were Never Spoken.
I research quotes before placing them on Instagram, but searches and keywords can lead us astray, despite our good intentions. Some memes add phrases that are not present in the original statement or poem. Emily Dickinson did write the lovely instruction that “The soul should always stand ajar.” However, her poem’s next line did not mention the “ecstatic experience” you’ll find in various online images.
The Fake Buddha Quotes site explained the origin of a “quote” I liked about doing work with mastery and coming out from behind the clouds to shine. Even the quote about ships I used in a blog post about healing has been connected to two people.
What message did I select for my business cards? Robert Louis Stevenson: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.”