Today’s misworded quote is not as ubiquitous as the one in my previous post; however, it is a good example of how a quote can morph into an entirely different quote as it propagates across the internet and modern literature. Please note I have underlined the words within the quote that have changed over time.
The Misworded Quote
✘ “Work as if you were to live a thousand years, play as if you were to die tomorrow.”
The Correct Quote
✓ “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die to-morrow.”
Poor Richard’s Almanac, May 1757
Here is the quote found in Poor Richard’s Almanac:
The Sources of the Misworded Quote
Like all other misquotes floating around in cyberspace, this misquote appears on blogs and social media websites. But more importantly it rears its ugly head on websites solely dedicated to providing quotes. One would think websites that appear to be an authority on a very specific topic would provide reliable data. Unfortunately, this is not true of quote websites.
Additionally, this misworded quote appears in a recently published book of strictly Benjamin Franklin quotes. Obviously, the author of this book did no research to ensure that only verified quotes were used. One would think that a book on so narrow a topic would be authoritative and accurate. The truth is that, much like quote websites, modern quote books are not reliable sources.
Finally, I came across another book recently published about Benjamin Franklin’s life, and the author includes this misquote on the book’s website. Thankfully, it is not featured in the book itself; otherwise, the book and the author would lose complete credibility.
The only books that can be trusted for quotes are books that include the name of the author/orator of the quote, the work in which the quote is found, AND the location of the quote within the work (e.g. chapter, act, scene, stanza, line). This last piece of data is important as I have come across many misquotes that attribute the author along with the title of the work when in fact one or both are false.
Most Amusing Find
My most amusing find is a website that sells term papers to students and offers this misquote as a topic to choose from. I wonder what the profits are from this sham! The bottom line is you can’t believe everything you read. Always question the author and the source.
Earwitness Accounts are Not Reliable
To avoid confusion regarding the source of today’s misquote, I want to mention that the first part of the misquote is very similar to another quote commonly attributed to Ann Lee (1736-1784), a Shaker leader and founder of the Shaker Society. Because she was illiterate and could not write, the only sources available for her quotes are earwitness accounts. Because each account is slightly different, there are variations of the quote. Here are two examples:
- “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as though you were going to die to-morrow.”
- “Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die to-morrow.”
Obviously, this quote repeats the sentiment of the first half only of today’s misquote, but because they are so similar, be aware that if you search the internet for the misquote, you will probably come across both Franklin and Lee as the source.
Translated Quotes are Not Reliable
I should also mention that there is a Latin quote that has several translations, one of which is extremely similar. It is:
- “Work as if you were to live a thousand years, live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
The caveats are that this quote can be found attributed to Ansalus de Insulis, St. Edmund of Abingdon, and unknown, so its origins are sketchy. And since it is translated from Latin, there are many variations. The actual Latin wording is Disce ut semper victurus, vive ut cras moriturus. My research has found these additional translations:
- “Work as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
- “Study as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
- “Learn so that you may be victorious; live so that tomorrow you may be prepared to die.”
- “Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”
The last translation is also commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi except the statement order is reversed with the “live as” clause occurring before the “learn as” clause. So if you decide to do some internet research, be aware that in addition to Benjamin Franklin and Ann Lee, you will also probably find Ansalus de Insulis, St. Edmund of Abingdon, Mahatma Gandhi, and unknown as the source.
Conclusion on Unreliable Quotes
In summary, secondary sources or ear-witness accounts are unreliable and should not be used as direct quotes. A hearsay quote would be a lot more trustworthy if it were derived from an actual interview that is conducted with the cooperation of the quoted person and is published during his/her lifetime. Additionally, quotes that are translated from another language are also not reliable. Every translator has a slightly different interpretation. And as today’s misquote demonstrates, all it takes is the tweaking of one or two words, and the quote takes on another life. Two slightly different translations can morph into four slightly different quotes which can morph into eight and so on and so forth. Yup, it’s that pesky quote virus I’ve been preaching about. Until someone can invent some kind of vaccine for it, we need to practice safe quoting by only using verified quotes. So check your sources! And remember
Investigate. Don’t propagate. Demand integrity in quoting.”