I recently went through the rather painful process of rechecking the endnote citations for the second edition of a book I worked on many years ago—back when I was younger and more naive about the veracity of things found on the internet. As I suspected, some of the pithy little quotations scattered through the book weren’t exactly accurate—some were misquoted, some misattributed, and some just downright fake. Since I wrote that book, I’ve learned not to trust anything quoted online, no matter how many hits it gets on Google and how many authors use it to open chapters.

It’s all too easy these days to just google “quotes about X” and get page after page of wise and witty one-liners attributed to people like Lincoln, Plato, and Winston Churchill. But before you cut and paste, do your homework—otherwise you’ll be cursing when your book is on the verge of publication and your editor asks you to provide citations for the endnotes. Don’t tell yourself “I’ll do it later,” or “Surely it’s real—everyone quotes that,” (If everyone quotes it, you probably should avoid it even if it is real—but that’s another discussion.) Sites like QuoteInvestigator and WikiQuote are your friends in this endeavor.

It’s amazing what rabbit holes can open up when you start trying to find original sources for quotes that have become so ubiquitous they are cliches. I thought I was beyond being surprised by these kinds of discoveries by now, but it took me aback to discover that one of the most oft-quoted sayings of Einstein—a phrase that launched a thousand self-help books—actually wasn’t said by Einstein at all, as far as anyone can tell. Yes, it’s that one: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” He said something similar (but not nearly as quotable) in a New York Times article in 1946: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” and it’s been suggested that this is the origin of the beloved quote.

One of my clients recently gave me a favorite quote by Socrates to include in his book: “Those who are hardest to love need it the most.” This one raised my suspicions immediately—it didn’t sound like a very fifth-century-BC kind of statement. An initial google search came up with lots of people using it. On digging a little deeper I discovered that it was said by Socrates….kind of. The real source of the quote was the 2006 movie Peaceful Warriorin which that phrase is uttered by a character called Socrates.

This recent article from The Chronicle Review has a few more surprising examples, a helpful classification system, and an amusing conclusion. I could go on (that other Einstein quote everyone loves—the one with the widening circles of compassion? Sorry, fake… well, kind of… http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein), but I’ve got a book project to get back to—one for which I’m meticulously checking any and all quotes for authenticity, before I cut and paste…

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