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Benjamin Franklin Never Said That

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Is there anything more satisfying than the well-placed quotation, the perfect zinger followed by the thoughtful chuckle and the subtle attribution - Dorothy Parker or Mark Twain, maybe. But have you ever been so sure that a certain quote came from Twain only to find out it came from someone you have never heard of, or it can't be traced at all?

It started happening a lot to Professor Corey Robin, so he gave the phenomenon a name: WAS, as in W-A-S, Wrongfully Attributed Statements. He wrote about them recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education and I spoke to him about how these statements started to plague him.

COREY ROBIN: I've had the experience many times where I'm writing an article or a chapter in a book and I think, oh I'll use that quote, and then I need to get a source for it for a footnote and so I just quickly Google the quote because I'm in rush and then all of a sudden I start getting up a series of websites that attribute the quote to somebody and then I try to follow up on the attribution. And then I start tumbling down this rabbit hole that you talked about where you can't actually find where this person said that thing.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm laughing because this has happened to me, probably many people out there, and it is incredibly frustrating.

ROBIN: Oh, I've spent many a day in that rabbit hole. It's awful.

MARTIN: So you've narrowed it down to three different kinds of categories. Walk us through them.

ROBIN: Well there's WAS 1, which is basically an adaptation or some kind of a composite of a statement that was made by someone or a series of statements made by several people. Some of them can be famous people, some can be not so famous, and it comes together as a composite or an adaptation of those statements. So, that's one type.

There WAS 2, which is a statement that was actually said by somebody, usually not so famous, but that it gets attributed to somebody more famous.

MARTIN: And WAS 3?

ROBIN: WAS 3 is the most difficult of them all. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The most vexing WAS.

ROBIN: The most vexing, yes. There's a famous quote: "Any idiot can survive a crisis. It's the day-to-day living that wears you out." And if you look that up on the web you'll see that Chekhov said it. Well, it turns out that Chekhov in fact did not say it, and you can spend endless days trying to find out there's different theories about it, but it's a kind of metaphysically uncertain status if anybody, even somebody anonymous, ever said these types of WASes.

MARTIN: What does that even mean, that these are statements that just kind of take on a life of their own?

ROBIN: Yeah, exactly. I say it's a kind of democratic poetry, basically. It's not the right quote. It's a fake quote, but - and oftentimes, though, it's better than the original and we just have to face up to that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Thanks so much for talking with us, Corey.

ROBIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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