07 November 2009

If You Want To Know a Girl's Faults

Today I woke up rather abruptly to news, brought by my niece, that the electric bill was overdue; I paid for it, turning a comfortable balance in my bank account to next to nothing to get by on for the month. Ah, well, such is life, I guess.

While I was fumbling about online attempting to get my bearings, I checked out John Webbe's familiar saying about the privileges enjoyed under British rule:

Thank God! we are in the full enjoyment of all these privileges. But can we be taught to prize them too much? or how can we prize them equal to their value, if we do not know their intrinsic worth, and that they are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature?

You know, the one that's usually misquoted and misattributed to Benjamin Franklin as:

Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.

Well, the very first source that turned up for it was a quotation site called QuoteDB; and it had both the fake "Freedom" beginning and the misattribution to Franklin instead of Webbe. Okay, my first thought was that I won't be using it as a source of apt quotations any time soon. Of course, any site—or book for that matter—that doesn't give sources for its quotations should not be trusted. Having grown up in the pre-internet age, I first learned this rule about books, actually. It was kind of discouraging to learn just how fucked up the very books we were being taught from in school were. One time when my brother got called down for supposedly misclassifying some animal in sixth grade, and he brought in some current publication to show that his information was, in fact, well-based. In a subsequent parent-teacher conference his teacher said something that has stuck with me ever since: "If you can't trust the Encyclopedia Britannica, who can you trust?"

Well, I don't trust reference sources, not even the all-wise and all-knowing repository for common knowledge that is Wikipedia. I mean, I'm a Wikipedia editor—a distinction that means about as much as being a minister in the Universal Life Church (which I also am)—and believe me, the common wisdom of the masses is just as likely to be wrong as the specialized wisdom of experts. Especially when you have to take into account the whole Neutral Point of View (NPOV) thing, which places Baconian and Oxfordian loons on the same level as qualified scholars who have actually studied the subject. If every opinion is equal, then common knowledge is a howling babel of discordant voices devoid of any standard for making a qualified judgment.

But yes, when a quotation site makes such an egregious blunder, especially in these internet days, it opens it up to some questions. As QuoteDB only contains 4099 quotations from 631 authors, you'd think they could at least get them right. So, anyway, I got curious about what else they might have off, and I checked out their Benjamin Franklin page. I didn't make any systematic attempt to examine them, but the two I looked at couldn't be found in Franklin's writings. (These were:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest


Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.)

The one that set off alarm bells in my mind, however, was right there on the first page. It read:

To find out a girl's faults, praise her to her girl friends.

WTF? How could anybody on earth think these were Franklin's words? The underlying concept could have been his, maybe, but the language? It's moments like this that make me despair of our educational system. How can anybody grow up thinking that this was the language of the eighteenth century—and of Benjamin Franklin at that? Is his autobiography not required reading in schools any more? What gives?

Well, I just made a trip out to the library yesterday, and (given my limitations on actually leaving the house) I didn't feel up to making another trip today, but this old dog has been learning some new tricks, and I decided to go to Google Books first, this time, and see whether I couldn't find out there what I wanted to know. I was not in the least surprised to find that there was not a single eighteenth or nineteenth century source for this one, not attributed to Franklin, or to anybody else. When I got to the twentieth century, however, I found this, in a book available only in what Google calls a snippet view:

To a friend, who asked him how to find out a girl's faults, he gave the sage advice to praise her to her girl friends. Another friend asked him how to prevent thieves from draining a barrel of beer which he kept in his yard; Franklin told him to leave a barrel of wine near the barrel of beer.

This came from a 1938 book by Edwin Lillie Miller, volume 2 p. 28, published by J. B. Lippincott. Please note that this, the oldest source turned up by Google Books, does not give it as a quotation, but only as a paraphrase. So this looks like one of those cases where somebody's version of something Franklin said has been turned into a direct quotation.

So what on earth did Franklin actually say, that could have been turned into the quotation as given above? I couldn't find anything that actually matched the description as given by Miller—that is, an answer to a friend on the subject. But Franklin wrote a lot, and he was written about a lot, and I (for one) certainly haven't read every word written by or about him. I did, however, find something that could easily have been the source for the paraphrase, and it does show that the underlying concept is, indeed, Franklin's. It comes from one of the letters he used to insert into his own paper under a pseudonym as if from a reader. Writing under the name of Alice Addertongue, "a young Girl of about thirty-five" who lived with her mother, he had this to say:

If I have never heard Ill of some Person, I always impute it to defective Intelligence; for there are none without their Faults, no, not one. If she be a Woman, I take the first Opportunity to let all her Acquaintance know I have heard that one of the handsomest or best Men in Town has said something in Praise either of her Beauty, her Wit, her Virtue, or her good Management. If you know any thing of Humane Nature, you perceive that this naturally introduces a Conversation turning upon all her Failings, past, present, and to come.

This appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 12 September 1732. (I got it here, from Albert Henry Smyth's 1905 edition of the Writings of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2, p. 193.) Now this actually is the language of Franklin's time, and at least for the moment, pending some further correction, I'm going to go with this as the actual source for the bogus Franklin quotation.

So as it stands this appears to have been one of those quotations that got simplified over time, to turn something a bit wordy into something more concise. Just as Walt Kelly's "Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us" turned over time into "We have met the enemy and he is us", so Alice Addertongue's comment as given above transformed into "To find out a girl's faults, praise her to her girl friends." It should however be noted that the words in question are Miller's, not Franklin's. And, I would also note, they were originally written by a creation of Franklin's; this Alice Addertongue is not Franklin in drag, far from it. She is as much a character of his, and not an admirable one, as Iago is Shakespeare's, or Simple J. Malarkey is Walt Kelly's. Words written for a character, or paraphrasing somebody else's views, are not the same as words the person wrote or said on his or her own behalf.

In any case, it is clear to me at least that QuoteDB should not be used for anything whatsoever. If you should find an apt quotation there, try to run it down to its source. Clearly QuoteDB has no standards of any kind, if they let this kind of crap by. And crap that's so easily checked, at that. Words are all I have, and they fail me now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, I think I've met Alice Addertongue ... rfh

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