I once worked summers with an older fellow who — when someone in the crew got the better of him in the horseplay that seemed to be a part of our seasonal job description in those carefree days — would hint of retaliation to come by warning us, “Remember, laddies: He who laughs last, laughs first.”
And remember the man’s mangled version of the old quotation about who gets the last laugh is precisely what I did for years afterward, at the expense of the real thing. Nowadays, when I seek to be absolutely sure about the business of who can be said to laugh best — and when — I turn to my dawg-eared copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for guidance.
There, I find that it was one Sir John Vanbrugh who allegedly said it right, way back in 1706: “He laughs best who laughs last.” A footnote warns, however, that it might be wise to leave some wiggle room should one plan to bet the farm on who should get credit for the sage and oft-quoted observation. Turns out Sir John may have borrowed heavily from an entry in John Ray’s “Proverbs” of 1670: “Better the last smile than the first laughter.”
Two things for people to consider when contemplating the use of quotable quotations are “elementary” — as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional crackerjack sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, is purported to have said so often it must have driven his loyal sidekick Watson nuts.
The first thing to take into account is that the quotation very likely is not exactly as you remember it to be. An extra word here, the dots of ellipsis there. That sort of thing. The second consideration is, no matter who is credited with uttering the line in question, he or she may well have borrowed it from some earlier wit, who lifted it from someone else, who inherited it from an ancestor who copied it off the wall of a cave in the south of France — Stone Age graffiti carved by prehistoric man with an eye toward confounding future generations.
Writers and speakers will often paraphrase a quotation, restating it in other words to simplify or give it new meaning. Sometimes it works well. At other times it doesn’t. I recall one such case from my ink-stained wretch days when a reporter for another Maine newspaper attempted to reshape a quote commonly attributed to Karl Marx, the co-founder, with Friedrich Engels, of Marxism.
When she finished with her tinkering, the old coot’s signature quote — “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” — had become not only rearranged, but gender-equal as well, so it read this way: “To each according to his — or her — need, from each according to his — or her — ability.”
Bartlett’s points out that Marx was believed to have been paraphrasing an earlier revolutionary in his “to each” comments, so I suppose it could be argued he got what was coming to him. All’s fair in love and paraphrasing.
I wondered, though, how a male reporter might have fared had he similarly revamped a quote by feminist Betty Friedan from her best-selling book, “The Feminist Mystique.” Something along this line, perhaps: “The time is at hand when the voices of the feminine — and masculine — mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women — and men — to become complete.”
Updating original quotations by paraphrase might be an idea whose time has arrived in other cases, as well, including the presidential campaign from hell we are presently embarked upon. Or not.
Picture presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney reworking Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech: “Extremism in the defense of my work at Bain Capital is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of making Barack Obama a one-term president is no virtue.”
Or President Obama reconfiguring prose attributed to President John F. Kennedy: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what redistribution of wealth can do for you; ask what you can do for your government-mandated health insurance plan.”
“By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed. Unfortunately, left to our own devices we often fracture the original version something fierce. Hence the usefulness of a security blanket such as Bartlett’s in helping us laugh best by laughing last.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.