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.)
“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!