Quotation: The Act of Repeating Erroneously the Words of Another

Ambrose Bierce? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A clever wit claimed that the act of quoting someone really meant erroneously repeating their words. I do not remember the precise phrasing; hence, this quotation itself is somewhat erroneous. Would you please help me to find the correct quotation and author?

Quote Investigator: In July 1906 a newspaper in Vicksburg, Mississippi printed a piece titled “The Cynic’s Word Book” by journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce containing a collection of eight entries. The following three items were included. The letter “n” means noun. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today

RADIUM, n. A mineral that gives off heat and stimulates the organ that a scientist is a fool with.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1906 many of Bierce’s entries were combined and published in book form under the title “The Cynic’s Word Book” by Doubleday, Page, & Company of New York; however, the entries in the book stopped at the letter “L”. Thus, the entry for “QUOTATION” was omitted. 2

In 1911 Ambrose Bierce published “The Devil’s Dictionary” which contained material from “The Cynic’s Word Book” plus numerous additional entries including the entry for “QUOTATION”. 3

In 1934 “The Evening Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland and other newspapers printed the following entry as a filler item: 4

Definition
From the Devil’s Dictionary

Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

In 1946 “The Sunday Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland published the following: 5

A quotation, said the acidulous and obviously experienced Ambrose Bierce, is “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”

In 1977 “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included the following two items. The Bierce remark was slightly altered with “Quoting” instead of “Quotation”: 6

The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.
—Robert Benchley

Quoting: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.
—Ambrose Bierce

In 1990 “A Dictionary of Literary Quotations” also printed the slightly altered remark: 7

Quoting: the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

In conclusion, Ambrose Bierce deserves credit for the entry which appeared in both the 1906 newspaper citation and the 1911 book citation. By 1977 the word “Quotation” was sometimes changed to “Quoting”.

Images Notes: Image displaying a pair of quotation marks created in GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program).

Notes:

  1. 1906 July 5, The Vicksburg American, The Cynic’s Word Book, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1906, The Cynic’s Word Book by Ambrose Bierce, (The entry for “Quotation” is absent), Doubleday, Page, & Company, New York. (Internet Archive Full View) link
  3. 1911, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume VII, The Devil’s Dictionary, Entry: Quotation, Quote Page 272, 275, and 276, The Neale Publishing Company, New York & Washington. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1934 May 16, The Evening Sun, Definition From the Devil’s Dictionary, Quote Page 23, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1946 April 14, The Sunday Sun (The Baltimore Sun), Mr. Truman’s Paraphrase Of A Line From Shakespeare, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1977, Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Quotations, Quote Page 418, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1990, A Dictionary of Literary Quotations by Meic Stephens, Section: Quotation, Quote Page 124, Column 2, Routledge, London and New York. (Verified with scans)