Today’s post is about an inspirational quote that is often misworded and misattributed to Margaret Fuller as well as Winston Churchill. Follow along to learn who really wrote it and who is spreading this inaccurate information.
The Misattributed and Misworded Quote Variations in Order of Popularity
✘“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
✘“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it.”
✘“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.”
Less popular variants include the plural word “candles” followed by “from it” or “by it” and singular “candle” followed by “from it,” “by it,” or “in it.” These versions are for the most part attributed to Margaret Fuller.
Oddly enough, I also came across a single occurrence of attributions to Jonathan Winters, Mary Engelbreit, A. K. Khan, and Professor Ursula James. Most likely these lone wolf attributions will begin to multiply across the internet over time.
The Correct Quote
✓“If thou hast knowledge, let others light their candle at thine.”
Thomas Fuller, MD (1654-1734)
Introductio ad Prudentiam: or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life
Part II, item no. 1784
Here is the quote found in Introductio ad Prudentiam: or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life, Part II first published in 1727 (Part I was published in 1726).
Here is the title page showing Thomas Fuller is the author.
An earlier version of the book was published in 1725 with the above title sans the first four words.
Caution: There Are Three Thomas Fullers of Note
The Thomas Fuller responsible for today’s quote was a British physician who lived from 1654 to 1734.
Do not confuse him with the Thomas Fuller who was a British cleric and author who lived from 1608 to 1661.
Additionally, do not confuse him with the Thomas Fuller who was a Virginia slave famous for his mathematical abilities and lived from 1710 to 1790.
If you’re going to cite this quote, please give credit where credit is due and specify which person it is (Thomas Fuller, MD [1654-1734]).
After surveying 150 websites featuring today’s misquote, I found the following trends.
Percentage Type of Website
33% Quotes only
15% Corporation/corporate individual
11% Social media
7% Quotes a major feature
2% Quotes paraphernalia
1% Topical group or discussion forum
1% Online app or service
Quote Websites Are the Main Source of Today’s Misquote
The above statistics show that websites with the sole purpose of providing quotes are the largest group propagating today’s misquote. If we combine them (33%) with the websites that provide quotes as a major part of their functionality (7%), we find that 40 percent of the websites perpetuating this misinformation are major quote repositories. The lesson here is never use a quote database found on ANY website as a resource for quotes. They are focused on quantity instead of quality. The worst offenders are the ones that allow any random visitor to add to the collection.
By the way, some quote websites provide other information in addition to quotes such as poems, lyrics, and short stories; I include them in the quotes-a-major-feature category. This category also includes websites that have a major quote database (10,000+) found under a tab or link on the home page.
Informational Websites Are Another Source of Today’s Misquote
The above statistics also show that informational websites are another major contributor to the proliferation of today’s misquote. I categorize informational websites as any website that provides news and/or information about random or specific topics. For example, I found today’s misquote on informational websites about women’s history, Margaret Fuller, and feminism. Obviously, these administrators and contributors did not fact-check their data even though they represent themselves as experts on these subjects. Again, never trust a quote found on ANY website—even if the website presents itself as an authority on a given topic. The only exception is if the quote is accompanied by detailed original source information that can be easily verified. Unfortunately, most quotes found anywhere on the internet are derived from either quote websites or modern quote books.
Modern Books Are Another Source of Misquotes
During my research, I came across 31 books that feature our misquote, and six of them are quote books. As I’ve written before, if a quote book was compiled after the birth of the internet, it is most likely riddled with misinformation derived from quote websites and other contemporary quote books. If a book does not provide detailed original source information with each quote, it is unreliable. For example, if a quote is from Charles Dickens, the citation should include his name as well as the book and chapter in which the quote is found. The name alone is not sufficient.
If the book is not a quote book, misquotes are often found at the beginning of each chapter, a style popular with contemporary authors. Of course, misquotes are also found within the narrative of a book, usually preceded by the name of the cited author followed by the words, “once said,” “said” or “wrote.” Again, if the book was written after the inception of the internet, the quote is not reliable. The author most likely used a quote website as the source. This does not mean that quote books written prior to the internet are infallible; it means they don’t feature as many errors as their modern counterparts.
Possible Cause of the Margaret Fuller Misattribution
The obvious assumption one would make about why Margaret Fuller gets credit for a Thomas Fuller quote is that they have the same last name. (By the way, they are not related.) In my experience researching quotes, I have noticed that authors with either the same last name or names that follow closely in an alphabetized list often get misattributed to each other. My 03/31/15 post Edith Wharton vs. Edgar Watson Howe vs. Elbert Hubbard is a perfect example of this. Notice these three first names would be grouped together in an alphabetized list. I suspect that a quote website administrator copied quotes from an alphabetized list, and when the list transitioned from Edgar to Edith or to Elbert, the transcriptionist did not double-check to ensure the quote entered corresponded to the correct person. My 07/17/14 post Kennedy Morphs into Keats: Another Reason to Get Your Inspirational Quotes from a Reliable Source is another example of this. Of course, I am hypothesizing, but I have seen this alphabetical phenomenon many times.
Another Possible Cause of the Margaret Fuller Misattribution
Knowing what we know about misquote propagation, or the quote virus as I like to call it, another possible cause of the Margaret Fuller misattribution could stem back to a quote book titled A Dictionary of Thoughts (F. B. Dickerson Co., 1908) by Tryon Edwards. Although the attribution in the book is correct, it is presented in a confusing fashion. The Index of Authors at the beginning of the book lists three different Fullers: Margaret, Thomas, and Richard. The problem is each quote cites the last name only. To figure out which Fuller is the correct one, the reader must consult the Authors’ Reference Index at the end of the book which specifies each author by page number. Why Mr. Edwards chose to structure his book in such a convoluted manner is a mystery; it obviously required a lot of extra time, printing, and paper. The end result is that the authors sharing the same last names get the short end of the stick because it is not eminently clear who said what. My guess is somewhere in time, another person created a quote book and used Mr. Edwards’ quote book as a source and misinterpreted which Fuller went with which quote. This is complete speculation on my part, and I could be wrong; however, after studying misquotes for many years, I can say there is a definite possibility I could be right.
By the way, today’s quote is not found in any of Fuller’s or Churchill’s writings in its original wording, current wording, or any combination thereof.
Most Amusing Finds
During my research, I came across a website that purports to be an authority on Margaret Fuller. The funny thing is not only is the misquote featured on this website but all three of the most popular versions of it are featured, AND they are accompanied by a comment stating the quote is also attributed to Thomas Fuller, her father. In reality, Margaret did not originate this quote, and her father was not named Thomas; his name was Timothy. It cracks me up that two untruths are reported in one statement completely destroying the credibility of the entire website.
Another mildly amusing find appears on a website for The National Land Agency in Jamaica where a business manager writes that Margaret Fuller said this quote in 2007. Apparently he did not get the memo that she died in 1850. OK, maybe I’m being a bit harsh. I actually think I know what happened. I believe this person misinterpreted an attribution found on a quote website which reads as follows: “Margaret Fuller, Woman’s Day Magazine, Sep. 12, 2007.” This person probably thought the given date was when the quote was said.
Most Disappointing Finds
I am sad to report that our misquote appears on several websites involved with academia. The National Education Association as well as various universities, such as Notre Dame and UCLA, feature the misquote on their websites. I even came across the misquote in a thesis titled “An Examination of the Forgotten Poetry of Margaret Fuller” presented to the East Tennessee State University School of Graduate Studies Department of English for Master of Arts in English. The misquote appears directly after a statement dedicating the thesis to Margaret Fuller. Considering how much research goes into a thesis, I am shocked this candidate did not bother to research the quote from the person who is the very topic of the thesis.
As usual, today’s misquote is available for purchase. You can have your own misquote coffee mug for $18.90. What a steal!
Let’s Kill the Quote Virus Together
Misquote propagation is a quote virus. Just one occurrence of a misquote anywhere on the internet can spread like a virus to other websites. Social media websites are the most fertile breeding grounds. One person posts an infected quote, all of his/her followers get it, who spread it to all of their followers, who spread it to all of their followers ad infinitum. The only way to kill the quote virus is through education. Please help exterminate this modern-day scourge by sharing the knowledge. Forward this post to friends and family, and if you’re on Facebook, “like” my Facebook fan page. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me @SueBrewton.
Finally, remember to practice safe quoting by avoiding misquote-infested areas such as quote websites and contemporary quote books. Never trust quotes that do not include detailed original source information.
“Be the antidote and don’t misquote.”