Beware of Zombie Quotes

More and more, I find unsubstantiated zombie quotes roaming the Internet, preying on careless authors. A zombie quote is a false quotation repeated so often and so prominently that people start to believe it’s true.

An author recently sent me a piece with this quote attributed to Randolph Bourne: “he who mounts a wild elephant goes where the wild elephant goes.”

If you Google it, you see that the quote is reasonably popular: it has 28,000 hits, has been repeated by celebrities, and is included in a book of collected quotes.

But here’s the telltale sign that it’s a zombie: in all those pages of hits, there’s never any mention of where and when this Bourne quote was born. Where’s the original? Bourne’s entire corpus of work can be searched online, and the quotation is not in it.

The earliest reference I can find is in Sy Safransky’s 1993 Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, where it is the first quote on the first page of the book. Actor Jeff Bridges took it from there and posted it on the Quotes page of his own website. (It’s a good bet that Bridges got it from Safransky, as the first five quotes on the actor’s page can all be found on pages 1–3 of Sunbeams. The misspelling of Bourne as “Borne,” however, is Bridges’s own contribution.)

And in December 2011, Tony Robbins, self-help expert to the stars, tweeted,

“He who mounts a wild elephant goes where the wild elephant goes!” Remember U pick your partner & with them a life style. My poor wife! lol

From Safransky and Bridges and Robbins, the zombie has since bit tens of thousands of web surfers and snuck into at least one more book. All it needs now is for some reputable libertarian publication to repeat it, and — voilà! — this evil quote takes on an unnatural life of its own.

A lot of zombie quotes start with a kernel of truth. And people usually remember objects and actions better than the exact words. So you can bet that Bourne said something memorable about riding elephants and losing control. And indeed, here’s the real quote, from “The War and the Intellectuals” (1917):

If it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground.

The zombified version was not only inaccurate, it was also bleached of its true meaning, allowing a self-help expert to make this antiwar metaphor into a tidbit of marital advice! It would be a shame for us libertarians to jump on the bandwagon.

So, editors, every time you see a quote, make sure to check its pulse. Don’t let your publishers get bit.

What undead quotations have you encountered? Warn us about them in a comment!


Filed under Tips and Tricks

7 responses to “Beware of Zombie Quotes

  1. “in December 2012, Tony Robbins, self-help expert to the stars, tweeted”

    If we discount the presence in the cognitive makeup of Mr. Reid of the gifts of the clairvoyeur (much as I myself enjoy, to the detriment of my pants budget, the regular chocolatey clairvoyeur), and thus discount the prospect of Mr. Robbins’s tweet’s looking pretty young, pace The Who, for having been *postdated*, yeah, by all of eight months, we are still left with the hope that in its anachronist chronology, the quoted passage, unrevised, will not itself enter the lists of those zombie quotes whose bewitching us he bids us beware.

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  3. Hey, I want to thank you for this. I’m finalizing a book on depression that’s being published next bring and I’ve made myself track down the real sources for the quotes I use. And I confess “Sunbeams” followed me on this. But I kept looking and eventually found your site. The quote is better but, unfortunately for me, the context isn’t right, so I’m not using it. Thanks again.

    • I’m very glad you found the post useful, David. Tracking down quotes is one of my favorite aspects of editorial work.

      How are you publishing your book? Is it a physical press only, or do you have a digital version?

      • Hi Mike: “David’s-Inferno” (physical and e-) is being published by Hatherleigh Press in March and, fortunately, distributed by Random House. I have epigraphs for each chapter and, at first, was using rock & roll lyrics. But the permissions thing got ridiculous so I’m only using one of Bruce Springsteen whose people were very reasonable. Of the other quotes, the only one I can’t find verification for is a frequently quoted one of Marilyn Monroe’s. In the notes I say I can’t verify it, but it’s too good not to use in a chapter of how to deal with a depressed friend or relative. It’s: “It’s often just enough to be with someone. I don’t need to touch them. Not even talk. A feeling passes between you both. You’re not alone…” I could find other similar quotes but, coming from her, it’s particularly powerful. Every quote website uses it but I see no source. I’m assuming an interview and plan to keep looking. Thanks again! David

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