Beautifully set italic type, labeled as "1994 Inaugural Speech of Nelson Mandela." (Which it isn't.) It reads: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Bartlett’s Apocrypha

My alarm bells go off whenever I see a viral quotation on the socials. An influencer might share that misattributed Marianne Williamson quote as a Nelson Mandela quote (pictured), or a pundit might share a memed WWII general’s anachronistic thoughts on β€œthe evil of political correctness.” One going around this week that seems to have no basis in fact is Cicero saying: β€œTimes are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

A reply to a tweet with that quote led me to this resource, which I am bookmarking: πŸ”Ž Garson O’Toole, Quote Investigator.

In general, these are some red flags I find helpful:

  • Does it sound surprisingly contemporary, partisan, or prescient?
  • Is the quote shared in a meme?
  • Is the speaker named but not properly cited? (e.g., J. Edgar Hoover is cited in name but not context)
  • Is the quote shared by someone who isn’t a historian, a reader, or thoughtful in any way? (I don’t like the gatekeeping of this one, but not sure how else to put it.)
  • Is the quote shared by someone who often reposts things frequently and quickly?
  • Is the quote shared by someone who often writes things like “RETWEET if you AGREE!”?

A quick way to check if a quote is ‘real’ or not is a simple search. In the fake Nelson Mandela quote pictured above, one might search misattributed mandela greatest fear or did mandela say fabulous or something similar.

If it’s not a misattributed quote that has been written about as such, finding the real source might be a bit harder. You could search Google Books or use the ‘search tools’ function which allows you whittle down results by filtering out certain years. You could combine an exact phrase search with a minus sign to omit the suspected source. Look for three or four words that you guess might not have been written that often before, or ever. (For example, you could search for (keeping the double quotes): “playing small doesn’t serve” -mandela

The first instance of the Mandela misquote was probably a prank or a copy-paste error, since I can’t imagine what other benefit it would provide someone. While it’s probably not faked for duplicitous means, I think belittles his actual legacy. Purposely misattributed quotes are worse and designed to give credibility to bad ideas. STAY SAFE OUT THERE, DEAR READER!






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