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Using and Enjoying Misquotations

15/10/2011 00:13 BST | Updated 14/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Spotting a misquotation offers much more than the guilty pleasure of putting a friend (or authority) right. Misquotations often tell us how we see things and people. Captain Kirk may never have ordered, 'Beam me up, Scotty', but the phrase encapsulates for a generation the leadership team of the Starship Enterprise returning from yet another mission.

Sherlock Holmes did not say 'Elementary, my dear Watson' in any of Conan Doyle's stories, but the phrase summarises for us the relationship between the brilliant detective and his dogged, loyal, but less intellectual friend. 'Failure is not an option' from the film Apollo 13 was the screenwriter's creation - but the words express exactly the absolute determination of the NASA flight director, Gene Kranz, to bring their astronauts home, after the fateful words 'Houston, we've had a problem' were signalled to Mission Control. In the film All the President's Men, the advice of the mysterious source 'Deep Throat' that the investigating journalists should 'Follow the money' was similarly penned by the screenwriter - but they summarise for us a key part of the unravelling of the Watergate story.

It is probably not surprising that several of our favourite misquotations can be traced back to the world of film. We edit as we remember, and some of our best-loved film lines are an amalgam of what was actually said. 'Play it again, Sam' evokes at once for the bittersweet relationship between Ingrid Bergman as Isla, and Humphrey Bogart as Rick, in the 1942 film Casablanca. The words in fact represent a blend of two separate lines. At one point Bergman tells the pianist, asking for the song that had meant so much to them in Paris: 'Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By".' Later Bogart adds, 'If she can stand it, I can. Play it!'

Sometimes the misquotation is a smoother or pithier alteration of the original. In the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, what Mae West actually says (or purrs) is, 'Why don't you come up some time, and see me?' What we remember and quote is 'Why don't you come up and see me some time?' The words 'Me Tarzan, you Jane' have become emblematic of the character of Tarzan of the Apes introducing himself to his future wife - but they were first used by the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, in Photoplay Magazine, summing up his role as Tarzan in the 1932 film Tarzan of the Apes. They do not occur in the original book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, or in the film.

Misquotations, once established, offer us a useful shorthand. Ginger Rogers's supposed claim that she did everything that her dancing partner Fred Astaire did, but 'backwards and in high heels', can be the perfect phrase to describe a woman's capabilities in demanding situations. (As the Texan politician Ann Richards said in a keynote speech about women in politics, 'If you give us the chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.') And Marie Antoinette never said of the starving masses, 'Let them eat cake' - but the image of a spoilt, selfish queen is the perfect way of evoking a picture of frivolous carelessness allied to power. If we want to indicate that we recognise the seriousness of a situation but are not unduly disturbed by it, we may say that we are 'Shaken, not stirred' - a handy phrase deriving from a modification of James Bond's recipe for his preferred drink: 'A medium Vodka dry martini - with a slice of lemon peel. Shaken and not stirred.'

Some misquotations become a matter of debate. The New York Times of 21 July 1969 printed the message radioed back by astronaut Neil Armstrong from his moon landing as 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' However, a number of earlier reports (including the one in the London Times) had reported the key words as 'One small step for man.' While the consensus is that interference in transmission blurred the 'a' so that the message was misheard, it has also been suggested that it was actually missed out when the message was spoken.

Famous lines associated with a well-known person may have been created by someone else. In 1973, facing a 'winter of discontent', the British Prime Minister James Callaghan told journalists, 'I don't think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.' The subsequent Sun headline, 'Crisis? What Crisis?' attached itself permanently to his name. Nearer our own time, in 2006, David Cameron (not yet Prime Minister), made a speech calling for more understanding of apparently threatening young people. This was summed up by a Labour politician in a phrase which has proved a lasting one: 'Hug a hoodie.'

At other times, the words we cherish are simply a more succinct rendering of what was originally said or written. 'Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated', as attributed to Mark Twain, is the popular form of a longer statement by the writer. In 1897, the illness of a cousin of Twain's occasioned reports that the writer himself was dying or dead. A statement was accordingly put out by Mark Twain, which appeared in the New York Journal of 2 June 1897: 'The report of my death was an exaggeration.'

The literary critic Hesketh Pearson said that 'Misquotations are made by the people', and quotations in the language take on a life of their own. Alterations in wording, and apparent misattributions, are often more than mistakes, and much more interesting. For seventy years, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has been mining this rich seam of language change.