Whose quote?

Today’s NYT has a nice op-ed piece (“The Wise Words of Maya Angelou. Or Someone, Anyway.”) by lexicographer Erin McKean about quotes and their attributions, on the occasion of the new US stamp honoring Maya Angelou:

from Erin:

This week the United States Postal Service celebrated the life and work of Maya Angelou, unveiling a stamp with her portrait and a lyrical quotation. Unfortunately, the words on the stamp do not appear to have originally been uttered by the poet. Instead, they come from the children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund.

Ms. Anglund, 89, graciously called the misattribution of her epigram to Ms. Angelou “interesting.” The line, “A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, it sings because he has a song” appeared in her 1967 book of poems, “A Cup of Sun.” (The version on the stamp uses “it” instead of “he.”)

This is not an instance of plagiarism — it doesn’t seem that Ms. Angelou, who died last year, claimed the words as her own. It’s far more likely that the very appealing line struck a chord with the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” who quoted it herself in many interviews. (The Postal Service noted that Ms. Angelou’s family approved the line for use on the stamp.) But the subsequent misattribution is a textbook example of a widespread phenomenon in the world of quotations: Churchillian Drift.

The term was coined by the quotations expert (or gnomologist) Nigel Rees, who maintains the “Quote … Unquote” newsletter and who broadcasts a quiz show of the same name on BBC Radio 4 in Britain. Essentially, Churchillian Drift is the process by which any particularly apt quotation is mistakenly attributed to a more famous person in the same field.

(Or as we sometimes say, some people are “quote magnets”; see my posting here.)

Erin goes on to describe how a quote (from her) on her blog ended up being attributed to fashionista Diana Vreeland.

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