Four months old, she was on the run, and desperate. Leaping from a seven-year-old’s casual grasp, she headed for the shrubbery, fueled by adrenaline and pursued by three equally adrenaline-addled boys. The spreading clump of holly, prickly and stiff, might have saved her, but she chose the ligustrum: a bush good for privacy, but no protection at all against determined hunters.
Cornered between cedar fence on one side and brick wall on the other, her only means of escape had been blocked by the boys. In a frenzy of excitment, the youngest plunged beneath the ligustrum. Managing to grab onto her tail, he pulled. Hard.
It was a mistake.
Taking no thought for their companion’s flowing blood, the older boys ran for home. While the tail-puller wailed, the cat streaked up the stairs and cowered, trembling, behind the dwarf schefflera at my door.
Ten minutes later, all was quiet. The bloodied miscreant had been marched home, and the cat had stopped shaking. She didn’t seem inclined to move, so I brought out a little saucer of milk. “Here,” I said. “Nothing like a drink at the end of a hard day.” Finishing the milk, she looked at me, then at the empty saucer. I brought more milk, and turned to go inside. As I did, she nearly sent me flying, scrambling under my feet on her own way to the living room, where she turned to plead with beautiful, green eyes.
“All right,” I said. “You can have a rest, but you can’t stay.” At the time, I didn’t understand that The Cat’s decision always trumps The Human’s decision, and The Cat had made her decision.
Dixie Rose, age four months
I’ve always enjoyed remembering that day. When I happened across a humorous remark about the dangers of inappropriate cat-carrying — The man who carries a cat by the tail learns something that can be learned in no other way — I recognized its truth, but couldn’t find its source. Attributed to Mark Twain, the saying appeared on animal rescue sites, blogs, quotation pages, cheap posters, and coffee mugs, but its place in Twain’s works seemed elusive.
Finally, a simple search combining the words “Twain” and “cat” took me to “Twainquotes.com: A Directory of Mark Twain’s Maxims, Quotations, and Various Opinions,” and thence to Tom Sawyer Abroad. In Chapter X, titled “The Treasure Hill,” Jim and Tom discuss lesson-learning, and the cat tale appears in its original context:
Jim said he’d bet it was a lesson to him.
“Yes,” Tom says, “and like a considerable many lessons a body gets. They ain’t no account, because the thing don’t ever happen the same way again—and can’t. The time Hen Scovil fell down the chimbly and crippled his back for life, everybody said it would be a lesson to him. What kind of a lesson? How was he going to use it? He couldn’t climb chimblies no more, and he hadn’t no more backs to break.”
“All de same, Mars Tom, dey IS sich a thing as learnin’ by expe’ence. De Good Book say de burnt chile shun de fire.”
“Well, I ain’t denying that a thing’s a lesson if it’s a thing that can happen twice just the same way. There’s lots of such things, and THEY educate a person, that’s what Uncle Abner always said; but there’s forty MILLION lots of the other kind — the kind that don’t happen the same way twice — and they ain’t no real use, they ain’t no more instructive than the small-pox. When you’ve got it, it ain’t no good to find out you ought to been vaccinated, and it ain’t no good to git vaccinated afterward, because the small-pox don’t come but once”
“On the other hand, Uncle Abner said that the person that had took a bull by the tail once had learnt sixty or seventy times as much as a person that hadn’t, and said a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was gitting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.
I know at least three boys who would agree: either with Twain himself, or with the multitude of others who happily quote an imagined Twain, using words he never wrote.
A few years ago, advice to “Google Before You Tweet” became a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the entirely old-fashioned “Think Before You Speak.” Unfortunately, Google search results aren’t always a trustworthy source of information, particularly when it comes to quotations. In this internet age, two sources, or three, never are enough. Even when multiple sources agree, it’s entirely possible that the information they’re providing is wrong.
The Internet is stuffed with misinformation about who said or wrote whatever it is we may decide to quote. Precise wording is never a priority. Errors of attribution get repeated a hundredfold. Relying on the Internet for…quotation research requires infinite patience, shrewd judgment and a determination not to believe what is presented as fact, just because a thousand Web sites say it is.
Misquoting someone unintentionally is one thing, of course. Reshaping their words to make them more appealing or understandable (or to make them fit on a coffee mug) is another.
Yet another problem, misattribution, can be both extremely interesting and extremely difficult to unravel. Rees terms a particular sort of misattribution Churchillian Drift: a process described in the New York Times as one in which any particularly apt quotation is mistakenly attributed to a more famous person in the same field. Britons tend to ascribe anything vaguely political to Churchill; Americans credit anything folksy or humorous to Mark Twain or Yogi Berra. And of course there’s Shakespeare, who’s been credited for words spoken by everyone from Christopher Marlowe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
A recent example is instructive. When I read that poet Maya Angelou was being honored with a stamp bearing her likeness and a phrase often associated with her, I paused.
Cropped image of Maya Angelou stamp
The phrase does evoke Angelou’s well-known book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but the words on the stamp belong to another author: Joan Walsh Anglund. Queried on the matter, Anglund said, “Yes, that’s my quote.” As the Washington Post reported, the line appears on page 15 of Anglund’s book of poems titled A Cup of Sun, published in 1967. (On the stamp, Anglund’s pronoun of choice –“he” — has been changed to “it”.)
A statement from Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders initially said that “numerous references” attributed the quotation to Angelou. He went on to add that “the Postal Service used her widely recognized quote to help build an immediate connection between her image and her 1969 nationally recognized autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Later, after being told that Anglund had confirmed the quotation as her own, Saunders said, “Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works… The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.”
Though late to the Anglund/Angelou discussion, I sent a note about the matter to the estimable Quote Investigator, a researcher as approachable as he is erudite.
Finding his work had sensitized me to the complexities associated with quotations, and I’d been impressed with his analysis of one of my favorite quotations: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I’d always assumed the words belonged to Anaïs Nin, but the Quote Investigator’s findings were rather different:
In conclusion, this saying has been used by Anaïs Nin, H. M. Tomlinson, Steven Covey, and others. However, its origin is not known, and it is not possible to provide a precise ascription. Hence, the expression should be labeled anonymous. The assignment to the Talmud does not have strong support. Perhaps future discoveries will help clarify matters. [Click here to read details of the investigation.]
In his replies related to the Anglund/Angelou matter, the Quote Investigator noted two precursors. One, which he termed a precursor variant, is found in The Sage of the Hills: Life Story of the Reverend W.G. “Bill” Lucas. Written by J.M. Gaskin and published in 1949, the book includes the line, “It should be remembered that the Nightingale does not sing just because we listen; it sings because it has a song in its heart.”
I have no confidence in any theoretical system for reaching the masses. The Good Samaritan way is the only one in which it will ever be done… The whole question will be solved by that comforting yet subtle philosophy underlying the life of Christ which helps because it must help.
A bird sings because it has a song and must sing it.
After Benjamin Dreyer, Executive Managing Editor & Copy Chief at Random House, opined on Twitter that following the Quote Investigator might have profited the Postal Service, QI responded, “Anyone who makes an error of misquotation or misattribution has my sympathies. It’s a difficult, error-prone domain.”
Rain showers have stopped for the time being, and I’ve raised the windows. Dixie Rose is lying on a chair next to me, sleeping in the light, northerly breeze. Her tail’s within easy reach. Should I reach out to run my finger along its length, she only would stretch, and sigh. If I dared take hold of it with a firm grasp, she’d come to full attention, give me her “look,” and perhaps even dole out a paw swipe or nip.
Does she remember her seven-year-old tormentor? Perhaps. Is she determined not to be bothered? Absolutely. When she turns to warn me, another bit of wisdom comes to mind: “Mess with a sleeping cat’s tail, and you’re in for a world of hurt.”
Mark Twain might have said that, too — but don’t quote me.