Don’t Quote Me on This

Play it again, Sam.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Houston, we have a problem.
Beam me up, Scotty!

It’s rather easy. You know exactly where all those famous lines come from. Of course, they’re from Casablanca, Sherlock Holmes (pretty much any book, right?), Apollo 13 (both the mission AND the movie), and the classic Star Trek series.

Well, not really. All of those are misquotations. At no point in the movie Casablanca does Humphrey Bogart say “Play it again, Sam”. He does say this: “You played it for her, you can play it for me. … If she can stand to listen to it, I can. Play it.” The wrong quote sticks mostly because it’s the title of the 1972 homage film by Woody Allen. Sherlock Holmes never utters the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson!” in any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books; the closest he gets to that is by saying “My dear Watson” and “Elementary” in two different lines of dialogue in the same page. And Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission, stated the following to mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt”. Pretty dull. But in the movie, Tom Hanks misquotes it in the fashion that we all know. And finally, Captain James T. Kirk never pronounces the words “Beam me up, Scotty!” in any episode of Star Trek. He does, though, repeatedly say “Beam me aboard,” “Beam us up home,” or “Two to beam up” and other variations thereof. Yet James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty, titled his 1996 memoir precisely Beam me up, Scotty!

There are many more blatant examples. Wikiquote has a handy list that saves me a lot of work. It’s easy enough to see why this happens. For an idea to stick, it has to be concise, simple, and strong. Beam me up, Scotty! is an immortal line, Beam me aboard is just a request. The You played it for her… speech might work in a movie, but it’s no T-shirt material. The interesting thing is that people become absolutely convinced that these quotes are correct, to the point that most will swear to remember them, in their exact form, from the source material. It’s one of the many tricks that our memory plays on us.

This is a very common practice anyway. You might have heard of the recent case of the New Yorker journalist who resigned after evidence emerged that a number of Bob Dylan quotes in his bestselling book about creativity were completely made up. To no one’s surprise, the media do that every day. It’s more than enough to catch the gist of what someone said if it needs to be put in a fancier, stickier form. There is an ongoing battle on the subject, with the New York Times on the forefront of media outlets that forbid quote approval.

But I digress. Here’s what I thought was, until five minutes ago, my favorite misquotation of them all. For years I have been reading a line attributed to Bugs Bunny, the cartoon hare famous for walking off cliffs in a straight line, unhindered by gravity: “I know this defies the law of gravity, but you see, I never studied law“. Too perfect, too clever, I thought. Conveniently made up, for sure. But see for yourself. Bugs Bunny’s PR representatives are the best in the business.


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