To quote or not to quote…

Jan 17, 2012 | Language

Misquoting famous lines is easy enough to do – some misquotes have become more well used than the original phrase. A recent survey has revealed the most common – many of them Shakespearean. How about ‘damp squid’ instead of ‘damp squib’? Or ‘Lead on Macduff’ – should be ‘Lay on…’.

These examples are harmless enough and, well, you know what they mean! But sometimes misquoting can cause great offense, particularly when taken out of context. Take for example a quotation inscribed on the side of the newly dedicated Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”


The speech this quote is taken from, delivered by Dr. King in 1968, is actually about the evils of self promotion. What he originally said was “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”  The first few words of the paragraph are absolutely vital and the somewhat brutal editing of a whole section of the speech has completely changed the context and meaning of the quote.

This unintentional, but devastating, mistake highlights the issue of editing, which must be done sympathetically and with a clear understanding of the original context and meaning. Poor editing can be just as dangerous as poor translation and for that reason editing and translation should always be carried out by an experienced professional.

I was glad to hear that instructions have now been given to change the inscription, and the memorial dedication ceremony took place on Sunday. You can read more about this story in the Washington Post here.