Memetics of Misquotations

Captain Kirk never said “Beam Me Up, Scotty.” Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Rick Blaine (as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart) never said “Play it again, Sam.” At least, none of these exact formulations were used. The book “Made to Stick” notes that in these cases, the misquotation sounds plausible because they combine fragments that these characters (memorably) say all the time into single, distilled sentence. In a sense, they are “better than real,” since they pack a large punch into an more pity package.  It is also interesting that, in each of these examples, there is a supporting character (Mr. Scott, Dr. Watson, or Sam the Pianist) being addressed, and always at the end of the purported quote. In The Selfish Gene, biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to a word, idea, or other piece of culture that might be thought of as reproducing via a sort of natural selection. Fitness here would be defined as how effective rival versions of memes are at persisting in, and jumping between, human brains. For example, Nice Guys Finish Seventh tells the story of how the ubiquitous sentiment “Nice Guys finish last” is a reworked version of a not very sticky quote by a baseball manager talking about a rival team:

Leo Durocher is best remembered for saying, “Nice guys finish last.” He never said it. What the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager did say, before a 1946 game with the New York Giants, was: “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.

The same techniques used to figure out the most probable evolutionary (Phylogenetic) tree of various species has been implemented to study texts ranging from “The Canterbury Tales” to Nigerian Spam emails. In these cases, copying errors, or willful “improvements” act as the mutations.


Author: lnemzer

Assistant Professor Nova Southeastern University

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