Reliable quotes in the age of the Internet?

Tracking down a quote ascribed to Thomas Edison provides an object lesson in online fact-checking.

Eastman Kodak
George Eastman (l.) poses with Thomas Edison (r.) in the garden at Eastman's home during the 1928 announcement of the first Kodak color movie film, Kodacolor.

Didn’t Thomas Edison say something interesting once about opportunity wearing overalls?

Sometimes an apparently aimless thought like that leads to something substantial. So when this one struck the other day, I went a-Googling to see if I could confirm what I thought I remembered, and get the wording and attribution right.

The days of pulling Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations down from the shelf are behind us – but how reliable are today’s online options? What should careful writers do to check the pithy sayings, quips, and the like that they want to incorporate in their prose?

I quickly found the “overalls” quote – in two versions.

One read, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The other version went: “Most people don’t recognize opportunity when it comes, because it’s usually dressed in overalls and looks a lot like work.”

Hmm. So which is correct?

Each appeared on a popular “great quotations” website. Neither gave a date or a context. Did the great inventor make the observation in a letter, a speech, a press interview? There’s no indication.

What clues do the texts themselves give? The first puts “opportunity” at the beginning. The grammatical subject is identical with the substantive subject. That’s good. But then we lurch into passive voice: “is missed by most people.” That’s not so good. The “actors” in the sentence, the ones doing the missing, are relegated to a prepositional phrase. Also not so good.

Moreover, the rhythm is a little off. “Because it is dressed”? Wouldn’t most people say “because it’s dressed”? Well, yes, except perhaps in writing. So this version seemed just awkward enough to be more plausible as something someone actually said, or wrote.

The other version, by contrast, looks to have been through the rewrite desk. The opening, “most people,” may be a little soft, but it’s appropriate for this sort of aperçu. “Opportunity when it comes” gives us a little context; it makes the first version seem abrupt. The rhythm of the second is better, and with its colloquial “looks a lot like,” gives some alliteration. Then it ends with a punch on “work.” 

It’s a line we can imagine hearing in a movie, delivered in the folksy twang Daniel Day-Lewis worked up to play Lincoln a couple of years ago.

But further investigation suggests that the right version is – neither. 

A website called Quote Investigator reports that the earliest attribution of the adage to Edison, in Forbes magazine, dates only to 1962, over 30 years after he died. Not a good sign. 

The idea appeared in various forms in many places throughout the 20th century, including the columns of the Monitor. Quote Investigator concludes: “[B]ased on current evidence, the safest attribution seems to be “anonymous.”

The Internet provides some bunk – but also debunking.

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