This evening has been fun, my wife is doing some research on leprosy to develop more background knowledge for her nursery workers at church who will be teaching some lessons involving leprosy tomorrow, and I taught her how to use del.icio.us and Google Notebook to save and share good websites she finds, and make quick webpages of images she wants to share with others.

In addition, I’ve been exploring the Wikiquote project and started a Google Notebook on my favorite quotations, since I thought it would be easier to update than my previously created static page of favorite quotations. I was quite surprised to find on the Wikiquote page for Ralph Waldo Emerson the following statement and link under the heading “Misattributions” about one of my favorite quotations of all time:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Widely attributed to Emerson on the internet, this actually originates with “What is Success?” by Bessie Anderson Stanley in Heart Throbs Volume Two (1911) Edited by Joseph Mitchell Chapple.

Wow. I am not sure when I first read that quotation and attributed it to Emerson, but it has been YEARS ago. I’m glad to find out I was wrong. Or was I wrong? And are MANY, many others, who not only repeat this citation on the web but even create commercial gift products using this quotation and citation wrong as well?

This situation brings up a very basic issue when it comes to information in general: How do we know something is correct? The most basic way to verify the validity of information is to check your sources and corroborate the information with more than one source you consider to be valid and authoritative. I needed to do that in this case as well, and not just take the “word” of the person who authored this WikiQuote page and the linked webpages they referenced.

A quick Google exact phrase search for “To laugh often and much” reveals the following:
– The website Transcendentalists.com confirms it is not from Emerson but most likely from Stanley’s 1905 book.
– Art.com sells a magnet on Amazon.com with this quotation, attributed to Emerson.
– The website QuoteWorld includes this statement and attributes it to Emerson, but does not list the original source document.
– Many, many, many other websites include this quotation and cite Emerson, but in my brief scan and can’t find anyone who lists an original book, essay, or other source where this was recorded as being said or written by Emerson.

So, did Emerson really say these words? I don’t know. Based on my cursory research, I don’t think he did.

Adding the last name “Stanley” to the previous Google exact phrase search cuts the search results from 65,800 to 500, and results in the following links:
– The website Laughter Yoga cites Bessie Stanley as the author of this quotation.
– A lengthy, detailed description on a page from “Chebucto Community Net” details the author’s research into the origin of this quotation, and his/her conclusion (I’m not sure who the author is/was) that indeed Emerson was NOT the original author, and Bessie Stanley was.

Interestingly, it appears that for a time Robert Louis Stevenson was given credit for the quotation.

In sum, this web research exploration provides some illuminating examples of how we all (even adults who think we “know” something, like the author of a favorite quotation) need to be careful to check our sources, and how the web can be a powerful tool to help us learn new things and verify the validity of information we encounter.

I’ve updated my static favorite quotations page to reflect Bessie Stanley as the original author of these favorite lines. 🙂

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One Response to Correcting a citation

  1. […] Wes Fryer writes about his recent discovery of a probable misattribution of a famous quote. The quote starts “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…” and is usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. How many print sources attribute this quote incorrectly? […]

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