Originality Is Undetected Plagiarism

Voltaire? William Ralph Inge? Herbert Paul? Paul Chatfield? Horace Smith? Katharine Fullerton Gerould? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been attempting to trace a provocative and humorous remark about originality that has been attributed to a professor at the University of Cambridge named William Ralph Inge:

Originality is undetected plagiarism.

Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: William Ralph Inge held the position of Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in addition to his professorship, and he was typically referred to as Dean Inge. He did make a comparable remark in 1927 but disclaimed authorship. The earliest closely matching statement located by QI was published in the journal “The Nineteenth Century” in 1896 by the English writer and politician Herbert Paul within an article titled “The Decay of Classical Quotation”:[ref] 1896 April, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 39, The Decay of Classical Quotation by Herbert Paul, Start Page 636, Quote Page 645, Published by Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

And, after all, what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism.

The saying has a long history and important precursors were in circulation in the 1700s and 1800s as illustrated below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1756 a multi-volume collection of works by the famous philosopher and social critic Voltaire was published. When discussing originality Voltaire emphasized the creative interdependence of great authors and used the candid terms “imitation” and “borrow”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1756, Collection Complette des Oeuvres de Mr. de Voltaire: Mélanges de Littérature, d’Histoire et de Philosophie by Voltaire, Volume 4, (The Complete Works of Voltaire), Quote Page 224, Scanned by Google Books at University of Lausanne. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Ainsi, presque tout est imitation. L’idée des Lettres Persanes est prise de celle de l’Espion Turc. Le Boiardo a imité le Pulci, l’Arioste a imité le Boiardo. Les esprits les plus originaux empruntent les uns des autres.

Here was one possible translation into English that was published in 1824:[ref] 1824, A Philosophical Dictionary, from the French of M. De Voltaire, Volume 5, Section: Prior, Butler, and Swift, Start Page 318, Quote Page 322, Printed for John and Henry L. Hunt, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Thus almost all is imitation. The idea of the Persian Letters was taken from that of the Turkish Spy. Boyardo imitated Pulci; Ariosto, Boyardo; the most original wits borrow from one another.

After the death of Voltaire in 1778 colorful anecdotes about the satirist were gathered and published. One tale printed in 1786 reported an epigram about originality spoken by Voltaire to an aspiring poet:[ref] 1786, Historical and Critical Memoirs of the Life and Writings of M. de Voltaire, Translated from the French of Dom Chaudon (Louis Mayeul Chaudon), Section: Anecdotes of Voltaire, Start Page 266, Quote Page 290, Printed for G. G. J. and J. Robinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

A young poet, who thought himself an original writer, having consulted him on a tragedy, full of extraordinary incidents, Voltaire pointed out to him the defects of his piece. The Rhimer replied, he had purposely forsaken the beaten track of Corneille and Racine. “So much the worse, returned Voltaire; originality is nothing but judicious imitation.”

In 1825 “The New Monthly Magazine” published an article titled “Specimens of a Patent Pocket Dictionary” that presented an alphabetical listing of words together with comical definitions. The meaning given for “originality” was reminiscent of the quip attributed to Voltaire; however, the word “undetected” was used instead of “judicious”. Here were four sample entries from the amusing dictionary whose creator was not named:[ref] 1825 January 1, The New Monthly Magazine, Volume 9, Specimens of a Patent Pocket Dictionary, (Number IV), Quote Page 46, Published for Nathan Hale by Cummings, Billiard and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Originality.—Undetected imitation.

Pedant.—A man so absurdly ignorant as to be vain of his knowledge.

Romance.—Using men and women instead of birds and beasts for the construction of an improbable fable.

Satire.—Attacking the vices and follies of others instead of reforming our own.

In 1836 “The Tin Trumpet; Or, Heads and Tails, for the Wise and Waggish” by Paul Chatfield was published in London. Chatfield was actually a pseudonym for a humorist named Horace Smith. A section of the book about originality began with a pithy definition:[ref] 1836, The Tin Trumpet; Or, Heads and Tails, for the Wise and Waggish by Paul Chatfield (Horace Smith), Edited by Jefferson Saunders, Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 62, Printed for Whittaker & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

ORIGINALITY — Unconscious or undetected imitation. Even Seneca complains, that the ancients had compelled him to borrow from them what they would have taken from him, had he been lucky enough to have preceded them.

In 1856 a book titled “Salad for the Social” showed that Smith’s version of the comical gloss on originality continued to circulate, but no specific ascription was given:[ref] 1856, Salad for the Social by Frederick Saunders, Chapter: The Larcenies of Literature, Start Page 357, Quote Page 357, De Witt and Davenport, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Originality has been defined “unconscious or undetected imitation.” “As for originality,” wrote Byron, in his journal, “all pretensions to it are ridiculous; ‘there is nothing new under the sun.'”

In April 1896 an essay by Herbert Paul titled “The Decay of Classical Quotation” was printed in “The Nineteenth Century”, and it included the earliest instance found by QI of the adage using the phrase “undetected plagiarism” instead of “undetected imitation”. This citation was given at the beginning of this article:[ref] 1896 April, The Nineteenth Century, Volume 39, The Decay of Classical Quotation by Herbert Paul, Start Page 636, Quote Page 645, Published by Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

And, after all, what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism.

On April 18, 1896 “The Evening Post” of New York printed a mocking editorial that included an instance of the quip:[ref] 1896 April 18, The Evening Post (The New York Evening Post), Section: Editorial, Quote Page 4, Column 2, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

The old commonplaces of literary morality have been brought out again, just as if an entirely new ethics of plagiarism had not been developed in full view of the whole world. Its first principle is, that originality is only undetected plagiarism. Absolute originality is, at this time of day, only another term for absolute nonsense.

In 1901 the article by Herbert Paul from 1896 was reprinted in an essay collection called “Men and Letters”, and in July of 1901 a writer in “The Monthly Review” examined Paul’s book and criticized his adage about originality:[ref] 1901, Men and Letters by Herbert Paul (Herbert Woodfield Paul), Chapter: The Decay of Classical Quotation, Start Page 48, Quote Page 64, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1901 July, The Monthly Review, Volume 4, Edited by Henry Newbolt, On the Line (editorial article), Start Page 11, Quote Page 16, Published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Epigrams, however, may be misleading. We have a bone to pick with one of Mr. Paul’s, although it is the merest little wishing-bone. “After all,” he writes, “what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism.” Surely it is a good deal more than this—a new way of looking at old things, and much besides.

The version of the saying written by Horace Smith, aka Paul Chatfield, was not forgotten. In 1903 a compendium of quotations called “In & Out of Book and Journal” included the expression and credited Chatfield:[ref] 1903, In & Out of Book and Journal by A. Sydney Roberts, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 52, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Originality—Unconscious or undetected imitation.—Chatfield.

Also in October 1903 a writer in the magazine “The Living Age” credited Horace Smith with another instance of the saying:[ref] 1903 October 24, The Living Age: A Weekly Magazine of Contemporary Literature and Thought, Personalia Political Social and Various by Sigma, Start Page 206, Quote Page 211, Column 2, The Living Age Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

With all his ability, Wilde was a copious though very covert plagiarist, recalling Horace Smith’s definition of originality — “undetected imitation!”

In 1914 the prominent writer Katharine Fullerton Gerould published an essay titled “Tabu and Temperament” with an interesting thematically similar statement about originality:[ref] 1914 October to December, The Unpopular Review, Volume 2, Number 4, Tabu and Temperament by Katharine F. Gerould, Start Page 280, Quote Page 284 and 285, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Conventional folk are often accused of being dull and valueless because they have no original opinions. (How we all love original opinions!) Well: very few people have any original opinions. Originality usually amounts only to plagiarizing something unfamiliar.

In 1922 an article titled “Unconscious Plagiarism” by H. M. Paull in “The Cornhill Magazine” presented an anonymous instance:[ref] 1922 October, The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 53, Unconscious Plagiarism by H. M. Paull, Start Page 484, Quote Page 484, Published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]

Originality has been defined as ‘unconscious or undetected imitation’; and Andrew Lang defined a plagiarist as ‘any successful author.’ These somewhat cynical utterances seem to imply that originality is now impossible: a platitude which each generation seems to discover afresh.

In 1927 a book presenting the “Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge” edited by James Marchant printed the following words of William Ralph Inge:[ref] 1927, Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge by William Ralph Inge, Selected and arranged by Sir James Marchant, Section: Preface, Quote Page v, Reprint 1968 by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

Originality, I fear, is too often only undetected and frequently unconscious plagiarism. ‘What hast thou that thou didst not receive?’

The above citation is listed in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.[ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: William Ralph Inge, Quote Page 382, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

In 1928 two newspapers in Ontario acknowledged the “London Evening Standard” while reprinting an article by William Ralph Inge which included the adage. However, Inge indicated that he thought the statement was already in circulation:[ref] 1928 January 4, The Flesherton Advance, Dean Inge Corrects Errors in Sayings Credited Famous, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Flesherton, Ontario, Canada. (Old Fulton)[/ref][ref] 1928 January 5, The Carp Review, Dean Inge Corrects Errors in Sayings Credited Famous, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Carp, Ontario, Canada. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. This is probably itself a plagiarism, but I cannot remember who said it before me. If originality means thinking for oneself, and not thinking differently from other people, a man does not forfeit his claim to it by saying things which have occurred to others, writes Dean Inge in the London Evening Standard.

In 1949 the indefatigable Evan Esar placed the expression in his compendium “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. The words were ascribed to Inge:[ref] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: William Ralph Inge, Quote Page 111, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) [/ref]

INGE, William Ralph, born 1860, Anglican prelate and writer.
Originality is undetected plagiarism.

Also in 1949 Burton Stevenson placed an instance in the “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” and credited Inge:[ref] 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Section: Originality, Quote Page 1441, Column 2, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) [/ref]

Originality, I fear, is too often only undetected and frequently unconscious plagiarism.
Dean W. R. Inge, Wit and Wisdom: Preface.

In conclusion, QI believes that it is reasonable to credit Herbert Paul with the statement he wrote in 1896. However, Paul’s expression was part of an evolving family of sayings, and interesting precursors were in circulation by the 1700s. William Ralph Inge employed the adage but did not claim coinage.

Image Notes: “Copy” and “Do Not Copy” images from OpenClips on Pixabay. Duplication icon from Nemo on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to David Haglund, Sam Adams, and Greg Cwik whose twitter interchange on the subject of plagiarism and associated epigrams led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bob Morane for his comment at Criticwire listing the Dean Inge quotation. Thanks to Alexander S. Kunz for pointing out the connection to Voltaire. Also thanks to the volunteer editors at Wikiquote for the Voltaire leads.)

Update History: On August 18, 2014 the 1914 citation was added. On June 6, 2018 the 1927 citation for William Ralph Inge was added to the article.

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