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Quoting famous people accurately

If you’re going to quote people on the Internet, you might as well quote them accurately. Here are some tips for quoting famous people accurately, based on my own detective work on one of my favorite quotes.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you never can know if they are genuine.” –Abraham Lincoln

The death of bin Laden prompted a couple of quotes attributed to Mark Twain and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be repeated endlessly on social networking sites. It turned out both quotes were false. Inaccurate quotes also tend to pop up in election years.

Here are some good tips to avoid spreading fake quotes the next time something really newsworthy happens. One nifty trick: A Google search, filtered by date, to see if the quote existed anywhere before the event.

“Abraham Lincoln” may be right, that you can never know for certain, but you can get a really good idea with a little bit of digging.

So let’s try it out on a different quote.

I’ve been trying off and on for years to figure out who originally said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Most online “cynical quotes” pages attribute it to Karl Marx. But the first time I saw it was in a textbook for a history class titled “England before the Glorious Revolution.” Since the Glorious Revolution started in 1688, I always believed someone else said it before Karl Marx.

The problem is, the Internet is where I see it most frequently attributed to the author of The Communist Manifesto.

So I tried a Google Books search. Karl Marx was born in 1818. So I decided to look for books from before 1818. My first hit was a Wikipedia article on the quote. That article attributes it to the conservative essayist, poet and biographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). But both of those men lived after the Glorious Revolution. My hazy memory wanted to think someone fighting in the War of the Roses said it before them, which would place it in the 1400s.

Google Books found it in three pre-1818 books, the oldest of which was An Extract of the Rev. Mr. John Wesley’s Journal. On page 39, in an entry dated July 1736, he said, “It is a true saying: ‘Hell is paved with good intentions.'”

That means John Wesley (1703-1791), the co-founder of the Methodist movement, quoted a variation of it in 1736. says that Johnson quoted it in 1775, which was later. But neither man claimed it as his own original thought.

The same page attributes it to John Ray in 1670 and, previously, to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), who said something similar: “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.”

John Ray (1627-1705) was an English naturalist and theologian. Further searching indicates he quoted it without attribution in a book titled English Proverbs published in 1670, which was within the period of history that class covered.

I got more results when I specified both a start and end date, rather than just specifying an end date, but I still couldn’t find it with an attribution prior to John Ray in 1670. He didn’t claim it as his own either, but perhaps he was the first to write the saying down in something close to its present form.

It’s possible the book was quoting John Ray. It’s more likely an English politician or general repeated the proverb. I’d look it up, but I can’t. I took the class in 1995 or 96. Unfortunately I resold the book at the end of the semester. I no longer remember the exact title of the book or the name of the author(s). I also can’t find an old syllabus. So I guess I’m at a dead end.

At least I’ve moved it back a few centuries. And I think a Google Books search is at least as productive than a search of the Internet. Probably more. Books have been around a lot longer.

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1 thought on “Quoting famous people accurately”

  1. “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
    Will Rogers

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