Can bad language punditry be stopped? Can false attributions for classic quotes be fixed?

License revoked: Can bad language punditry be stopped?. Jan Freeman writes in the Boston Globe about her ideal world, in which journalists, commentators, and other public figures would double-check their facts before they go spreading misinformation about language, especially about word origins.

Jan’s perspective is spot-on. There’s a laxness—an insufficient intellectual rigor—where it comes to language commentary, even by some of our media colleagues who should know better. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but if you haven’t even checked the most basic resources and reference works before repeating some false etymology, that’s just laziness.

From where I sit, most of this laziness comes from people who learned a few things early in their careers and then haven’t bothered to keep up with the state of the art. In word origins in particular, my colleagues are debunking old stories by the page-fulls, so you can’t just keep quoting the same few books. You’ve got to participate in the community: read the language blogs, join the email lists, participate in the discussion forums, and, even listen to radio shows. When we do word origins, Martha and I often share first-hand primary research that we have done ourselves, stuff that cannot be found in any book. We don’t lord it around and shout “exclusive!” but it’s satisfying to know that hundreds of thousands of listeners are getting the straight dope as far as it can be known.

Directly on this subject is the column by Fred Shapiro in the New York Times Sunday Magazine today, in which, as he fills in for William Safire, he demonstrates how many of the people we believe said certain famous quotes did not, in fact, say them. It’s not just a few. There are *thousands* of them that even the most revered collections of quotations get wrong: they get the name wrong, the data wrong, and, sometimes, they even get the original quote wrong.

Posted July 27, 2008

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