A Serious Matter of Attribution

I have a problem with Johnny Depp.

Now, before you lynch me, I should point out that my problem isn’t actually Johnny Depp. Just like this quote, which has been circulating around Facebook often enough to make me homicidal, also has little to do with Johnny Depp.

Yeah, I made my own version of it just for this blog. Why? Because I’m particular about typography.

I have nothing against Johnny. I’ve quite enjoyed him, from Scissorhands to Sleepy Hollow (although his Wonka was a little too psychopathic-pedophile for my tastes). It’s just that this type of misattribution drives me absolutely around the bend, which is why despite the fact that most people probably never get tired of looking at Johnny Depp, I have grown so annoyed just by the sight of his face that I want to punch someone. This is just another reason why I shouldn’t be on Facebook at all, I guess, but I am, so rather than froth at the mouth and post gentle correction after gentle correction on my long-suffering friends’ walls, I thought I should just blog about it.

You see, that quote up there, the very lovely and profound quote about that most fascinating emotion, isn’t Johnny Depp’s. They’re actually lines he spoke, in character, for the film Don Juan DeMarco. As such, they probably shouldn’t be attributed to Depp but rather to the character, since it’s screenwriter Jeremy Leven’s Don Juan and not, in fact, Johnny Depp who has so eloquently waxed poetic about life and love. You savvy? (Heh, see what I did there?)

By way of illustration, allow me to demonstrate how easy it is to make Johnny Depp look like a complete idiot and/or psychopath by attributing to him some other lines from his characters.

When you attribute quotes that actually come from ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s The Mad Hatter, Johnny starts sounding like maybe he needs some rehabs to go with his tea.

Or you could use this quote from the title character in ED WOOD to make Johnny sound like a transvestite. Transvestites are often both awesome and fun, but Johnny might still be pissed if you shared this around on Facebook without checking to find out whether he himself is in fact a transvestite. (Don’t be modest, he like totally reads your wall EVERY DAY.)

Or you could use this quote from Raoul Duke of FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS to make it sound like… well actually, he probably is rich enough that he could make girl-on-polar-bear action happen if he really wanted to. If I were him, I would instead import a polar bear, train it to carry me into battle, and outfit it with its own suit of armor and possibly a small cannon. But that’s just me.

You see my point, I’m sure. Of course, Johnny isn’t the only person to suffer from this misattribution malady. (According to my spell check I just made up the word “misattribution.” Screw you, spellcheck.) Every line ever uttered by any character in any play written by Shakespeare tends to be attributed as simply, “-Shakespeare.” By this logic, Shakespeare must’ve been a Danish prince stranded on an island while trying to murder his Moorish rival while going mad and wandering the wilderness with his fool, and a lot more besides. He was a very busy man. A similar conundrum makes crediting the screenwriter or author for a character’s quote problematic; writers do not necessarily share their characters’ opinions, though they do put words in their mouths. The safest bet then, if you’re looking to attribute a quotation for a character, is to attribute the quote to the character by name, and also cite the work in which that character utters the line. That way everything’s nice and simple, and people who are intrigued by the sexual shenanigans of polar bears even know where to find more information on the subject! It’s a win-win!

So, just in case you’ve found yourself to be terribly inspired by that slightly abridged opening quote — you know, the one from Don Juan DeMarco? — and you want to share it on your Facebook wall, I want you to know that because I’m such a giver, I’ve made a new version of it for you. You’re welcome. I’ll be posting it on my page if you’d care to share it and help me stamp out rampant misattribution on Facebook. I won’t even ask you to change your profile picture to a cartoon character or post that you’re going on a vacation you aren’t actually going on. Sometimes it’s super-easy to do the right thing.


21 thoughts on “A Serious Matter of Attribution

  1. great post

    i almost put a quote on my own blog a few days ago attributed to someone very well known

    but then i stopped myself and thought it wise to do a bit of research first – sure enough, misattributed

    • Thank you! Google is a great ally in the misattribution fight because it’s so much easier now to find out if a quote is misattributed… but it’s also a massive pain in the ass because one person will misattribute something and then it just spreads like wildfire, with no sources cited and no really good way to check. It’s too bad we don’t tend to get more context with these things! :D

  2. I already kinda proposed to you on FB, but SMOOCH here too, and FYI I Piniwazited it. But if you just click on the icon, it tries to pin that first pic, doesn’t give you any other options, thus pretty much undermining the whole reason for pinning in the first place. Did pin, just did it the old fashioned way.

    • OMG, that is SO TRAGIC. I have no idea how Pinterest works (I’m kind of avoiding it because of its draconian TOS but also because I’m afraid it would eat my brain), but I’ll have to google it and see whether there’s some way I can make my postings more Pin-friendly.

  3. PS 3 repins. The message spreads. Should do it mid-afternoon on the weekend. ;-)

  4. Mmmm…. a page of JD pics…oh wait, there were words? Must re-read.

  5. Amazing how we think alike along certain lines. If I find an interesting quote on FB (which are few and far between) I always check for proper attribution and seldom share. I can’t stand the misspellings, bad grammar, and stray punctuation either. However, I’ve got to admit I absolutely adored Don Juan DeMarco when I saw it years ago. Fantasy rules!

  6. I’m sorry, did you say something? I was distracted by Johnny Depp. ;)

    And for the record, we can’t blame sweet Johnny for these misattributed quotes. He’s not sitting at home every day, creating memes of himself with misattributed quotes.
    Well, maybe he is. I don’t know for sure, since I’ve never been to his home, sadly. When he and I meet, it’s usually at a neutral location. Of course, since he and Vanessa have broken up, I might finally be invited to check out his digs. I’ll get back to you on whether or not he’s the culprit behind the meme and misattributed quote. Once we’re finished with our personal business, if you know what I mean, ;)

    • My blaming of Johnny is mostly meant to be ironic — even the blame gets misattributed to the poor guy! — but maybe it’s ironic in the same sense that Alanis Morrisette songs are ironic. But I would certainly appreciate you investigating in person. I’ve long suspected for instance that the original lolcats were in fact created by cats as a “look, we’re cute and harmless and talk in funny English, we would never want to be your masters and overlords!” sort of a PR move.

  7. Excellent point. People often blur the distinction between actors & their characters. Another big source for misattributed quotes are bits of supposedly ancient wisdom that get attributed to Indian chiefs or ancient Chinese scholars. Here’s what I mean: http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/ancient-wisdom/

    • Oh my god, the Indian chiefs. YES. I am driven absolutely MAD by all of the “Indian Wisdom” that I see going around Facebook and posted up on wall posters and whatever else. (Said sayings are usually so kitschy they might as well be surrounded by photos of kittens and rainbows, and also might as well say “THIS QUOTE IS SO BLATANTLY FAKE BUT WE ARE SURE YOU WILL FALL FOR IT ANYWAY.”) I guess what really gets me about it is that the people who post those feel-good messages without giving any of it a second thought think they feel some connection to Indian culture and really feel no need to actually investigate that culture and learn something about it. Hell, pick up a Sherman Alexie book and you’ll learn more about being an Indian than you would from ten volumes of “quotes.” Those are motivational posters disguised as culturalism or spiritualism, but they aren’t by any stretch harmless.

  8. Pingback: Bright Strange Things | All of Life’s Pressing Questions, Direct From the Internet

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