The fact that the U.S. post office just issued a Maya Angelou stamp with a quote on it that isn't hers has occasioned not a few remarks. The great poet did of course title her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but it was Joan Walsh Anglund, a children's author, who apparently wrote, "A bird doesn't sing because he has an answer, it sings because he has a song."
The misquote provoked a lot of gotchas, an announcement of a discontinuation by the U.S. Postal Service, and a lovely New York Times op-ed piece by Wordnik.com founder Erin McKean, who cites the misquote as an example of "Churchillian Drift," the phenomenon whereby pithy sayings are mistakenly attributed to famous, likely, but incorrect sources.
I don't know (Ms. McKean, do you?) if there is a separate term for the phenomenon whereby pithy sayings are taken out of context and applied to improper circumstances. But wedding season seems to bring out the quote book from all of us. Here are five popular wedding quotes that you should think twice about before using as you toast your newlyweds.
1. "Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
The line is rightly attributed to the famous justice, who wrote it in an 1891 essay called "Moral Antipathy." So there's no Churchillian Drift here. But the full quote is actually "Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and most easily of all, the gate of fear." Cheers!
2. "Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking together in the same direction."
-- Antoine de St. Exupery
Who could argue with the sentiment? It's wonderful advice, and not necessarily unfair to take out of context. But here is the context: St. Exupery was not referring to married love when he wrote it -- not even to romantic love. The words appeared in his nonfiction book L'Homme et La Terre, which was translated in 1939 into the book Americans know as Wind, Sand, and Stars. The wonderful author of The Little Prince was writing about man's obligation to other men, specifically the sacrifices and bonds called for in times of hardship. The full quote? "No man can draw a free breath who does not share with other men a common and disinterested ideal. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. There is no comradeship except through union in the same high effort. Even in our age of material well-being this must be so, else how should we explain the happiness we feel in sharing our last crust with others in the desert? No sociologist's textbook can prevail against this fact. Every pilot who has flown to the rescue of a comrade in distress knows that all joys are vain in comparison with this one." Salud!
3. "Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny."
Really. Think twice before you use this as a wedding blessing. Goldman, famous anarchist that she was, penned that phrase in a book called On Marriage and Love, and the rest of the sentence read: "how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?" In fact, on the first page of her essay, Goldman wrote: "Marriage and love have nothing in common; they are as far apart as the poles; are, in fact, antagonistic to each other." Prost!
4. "Love is a fire that feeds our life."
-- Pablo Neruda
What's to argue? Of course love is a fire that feeds our life. Like St. Exupery's, this is a beautiful, brief, and vivid statement. But before you raise and clink your fork against your champagne glass, you should know that Neruda wrote the line in remembering the moment in his boyhood when, playing in a back yard, he saw the hand of another small boy poking through a hole in a fence and delivering to him a small white toy sheep. Neruda wrote: "To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and our solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses--that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things." L'chaim!
5. "A pack of blessings light upon thy back."
-- William Shakespeare
The original context was Romeo and Juliet, and look how well things turned out for them. But beyond the fact that you might not want to quote from a play about tragically doomed lovers, the "thy" wasn't plural; the "back" was only Romeo's, and the phrase wasn't a blessing but rather the end of a blistering scold (not "may you be blessed," but rather "count all those blessings you've got on your back") in which Friar Lawrence just managed to stop Romeo from killing himself. Bottoms up!