Misquotations for a Leisurely Sunday

Enough Mexican history! Enough! I will refrain from posting any more Mexican history in such big dollops.

Old Fowler* is a prickly pear. His book is a delight withal—my use of “withal” a tribute to him. Under his entry “misquotations” he offers this vision of a part of his Utopia:

In a perfect world, familiar lines or passages from the great classical works of English literature, or from famous speeches, would never be misquoted.

That may be true, H.W., but not many of us are going to change our ways.

Here is his list of examples. Many of you are aware of some of these. Not every one will be of interest to everyone. The middle ones will be of interest only to the aging English Majors among us.

  • In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (not brow) –Genesis 3:19.
  • I am escaped with the skin of my teeth (not by) –Job 19:20.
  • To gild refined gold, to paint the lily (not gild the lily) –Shakespeare, King John.
  • A goodly apple rotten at the heart (not core) –Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice.
  • An ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own (not poor) –Shakespeare, As You Like It.
  • I will a round unvarnished tale deliver (not plain. . .not relate) –Shakespeare, Othello.
  • But yet I’ll make assurance double sure (not doubly) –Shakespeare, Macbeth.
  • Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new (not fields) –Milton, Lycidas.
  • That last infirmity of noble mind (not The. . .not minds) –Ibid.
  • Fine by degrees, and beautifully less (not small) –Prior, Henry and Emma.
  • They kept the noiseless tenor of their way (not even) –Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.
  • A little learning is a dangerous thing (not knowledge) –Pope, Essay on Criticism.
  • The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men (not plans) –Burns.
  • Water, water, every where. Nor any drop to drink (not And not a) –Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  • Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (not Power corrupts) –Lord Acton, letter of 1857.
  • My dear, I don’t give a damn. –M. Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1936. Compare Clark Gable’s words in the 1939 film version: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”
  • I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat (not blood, sweat, and tears) –W.S. Churchill, Hansard, 1940.
  • If she can stand it, I can. Play it! (not Play it again, Sam) –H. Bogart, Casablanca, 1942 film).

R.W. Burchfield undoubtedly fiddled with the last three since Fowler’s original book bore a copyright of 1926. Grumpy old Fowler would not have included Gone with the Wind and Casablanca among the classic works of literature. For my part, I am with Burchfield. I do consider it error to misquote H. Bogart.

*The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, Edited by R.W. Burchfield (1996).

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The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church

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