The Confession of a Word Thief

"You brute! You coward!" from an ano...

“You brute! You coward!” from an anonymous artist’s illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many things which I wish I had said, in real life and in other situations.  I often find these bits of compact wisdom when looking up quotes to head a short piece I’m working on, or to back up a point in a longer one.

Sometimes I am searching for a quote I can “liberate” to be used as dialogue for a character.  This is, I imagine, a practice that is employed by more authors than myself, but I’ve never heard any One admit to it, and chances are, I won’t.

Here’s my confession…and for a momentary bit of entertainment while readers of this confession form opinions about the degree of my transgressions, here are a few fun quotes I came across while looking for the source of a quote I wanted to “liberate” a couple days ago:

“If you look like your passport photo, you’re too ill to travel.”  – Will Kommen

“Tradition is what you resort to when you don’t have the time to do it right.” – Kurt Adler

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” – Kenneth Boulding


“You have to choose where to look, and in making that choice you eliminate entire worlds.” – Barbara Bloom

All these were wonderful little bits, small amusements on the way to what I was looking for.  I needed a smart, memorable.  quick-hitting line I could put into the mouth of one character trying to calm another character who was worrying way too much about something nothing could be done about…except worrying.  Such liberations, if done properly, need to be from a source that is not famous, since recognition ruins the appearance of originality, for people attached to the idea that all their thoughts and writings are pure of intentional or unintentional borrowing.  I had remembered hearing a quote once about the “…unimportance of most things…”, and I had done a word search with as much of it as I remembered, and got lucky.

It turned out well.  I thought it had been Oscar Wilde…that kind of sarcastic and witty wordplay.  That would have ruined it though, since most people will recognize Wilde like they do Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln or other such iconic voices.  Like I said, I was lucky.  The quote was ascribed to someone named John Loque, a name that when I put it in a google search didn’t even draw a hit…John Locke, the economic theorist came up again and again.  Seems Loque hasn’t drawn any attention from any One except me.  Good.

Here’s the original quote:

“It’s almost impossible to overestimate the unimportance of most things.”

– John Loque

A truly unknown source – and to not have the name even come up on a google word search is about as close to a definition of anonymity as I can think of.  Do a word search on yourself…see if something doesn’t come up.  I’ve got a little short of a page full of hits.  I did a similar search using my mother’s name…again, hits.  Some of her hits even had photos.  Weird world.  Anyway…I needed to do a little re-working of this quote, like a guitarist taking a riff and playing around with it until it becomes theirs.  What had drawn me to this quote originally was the way it turns back on itself, using “overestimate” and “unimportance” together…over…under.  I was going to put these words in the mouth of my character – a witty guy who likes the way words can play off each other, pushing and pulling against each other like a line of boats moored together in a choppy sea, so the line would have to come off as ambiguous, over-stated, a thought stopper.  Here’s what I came up with:

“It really is impossible to overestimate the relative unimportance of most everything that actually happens.”

Now that worked perfectly.  It rolled off the tongue of my character with the elegant ease of one trying to reassure a friend, but maybe agitating them even more with all the push-and-pull, along with a few qualifying words that would truly make the character spoken to have to stop and slowly figure along the sentence to gauge exactly how the words were working together.  And, the bit at the end about “…everything that actually happens…” allowed me to not have to have my slippery character say something un-slippery like, “Don’t worry.  Things don’t usually turn out as bad as we make them out to be.”

Pooh Hamaca 2Besides all that, it’s just a good piece of advice.  It might even be showing up soon while doing a google word search.  I am truly standing on the shoulders of Giants…Giants such as John Loque.  If there really is a John Loque, and if he’s still alive – or if there’s a family member managing the fortune in royalties lost due to my liberation of this quote – here’s where to find me.  I remain, faithfully yours, and unconcerned.

22 thoughts on “The Confession of a Word Thief

  1. David says:

    I really like the one about looking like your passport photo. I might have to use that should I do a post that features a portrait. 🙂

    • coyotero2112 says:

      That is a jewel..and my passport photo is the worst of the worst. Any arguments and I’ll post it to prove it. Scary. Glad you liked this, it was kind of fun admitting to my transgressions.

  2. Yes, Oscar Wilde also said “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It’s one of the differences I’ve never understood between music and literature. If I perform a cover of a song, even if it’s note for note, everyone nods their head and says it was a very good cover. If I “cover” a quote in my writing, even if I’ve tinkered with it a little, then suddenly it’s plagiarism. I find that odd.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      WSB’s essay, Les Voleurs…steal everything in sight and mess with it until it is recognized as your own. There should be WSB summer camps, I’m thinking.
      I once plagiarized an article on plagiarism for a media class…the assignment was how and why to avoid plagiarism. Instructor didn’t notice. I had to tell him.

  3. mrs fringe says:

    Now I’m what-ifing a Dorothy Parker character…

  4. dreamlandinsurgents says:

    Look at it this way … anyone famous you could quote probably either had help, an editor, or liberated and remixed it themselves…. You could try liberating quotes in translation, too, phrases english speakers might be even less familiar with!

    • coyotero2112 says:

      I have a Russian character in a WIP that only speaks in quotes…using something similar so he can speak.
      You got it though…there’s not much that comes but from a train of thought, large or small.

  5. I love words. I particularly love words that, when put together, are profound. I love these quotes…all of them. This is the murkiest I’ve felt in a long time. Your characters are lucky to have you out here in the universe searching for the right words no matter who puts them together.

    • coyotero2112 says:

      Finding this quote page…too funny. Really liked the one about passport photos. I made a character who speaks in nothing but quotes…he’s a kick.

  6. shimmyshark says:

    Keeping my mouth shut around you from now on.
    On my Way…

  7. ioniamartin says:

    Do you ever wonder if the people who penned those great quoted ever lost an argument? I mean, wouldn’t they likely always have a comeback?

  8. You stole all these words! From my dictionary. I am telling!

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