Will Rogers Said That. Except He Didn’t.

The other day, a friend forwarded to me an e-mail that had been forwarded to him and 17 other people. It had the look of having been been forwarded many, many times. Here’s how it started:

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It continued with more “gems:”

4. Never miss a good chance to shut up. 5. Always drink upstream from the herd. 6. If you find yourself in a hole, get smart &  STOP your digging immediately. 7. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your pocket. 8. There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves. 9. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.   10. If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.   11. Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier’n puttin’ it back in. 12. After eating an entire bull, a mountain lion felt so good he started roaring. He kept it up until a hunter came along and shot him.
The moral: When you’re full of  any kind of bull: keep your mouth shut.

First ~Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it. Second ~ The older we get, the fewer things seem worth waiting in line for. Third ~ Some people try to turn back their odometers. Not me; I want people to know ‘why’ I look this way. I’ve traveled a long way, and some of the roads weren’t paved. Fourth ~ When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of Algebra. Fifth ~ You know you are getting old when everything either dries up or leaks. Sixth ~ I don’t know how I got over the hill without getting to the top. Seventh ~ One of the many things no one tells you about aging is that it’s such a nice change from being young. Eighth ~ One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been. Ninth ~ Being young is Beautiful, but being old is Comfortable. Tenth ~ Long ago, when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft. Today it’s called Golf.

And, finally ~ If you don’t learn to Laugh at Trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.

You might think I’d be happy that an image of the cover of a book I wrote was apparently being shared around the universe. I was not. That’s because, of the 25 quotations in the email, I was reasonably certain that none were actually said or written by Will Rogers. Since Rogers (1879-1935) is not well known today, I should say that he grew up on a ranch in Oklahoma (then Indian Territory), was briefly an actual cowboy, but went into show business in his early 20s, first as a vaudeville trick roper, then as a Ziegfeld Follies monologist. In his heyday in the 1920s and ’30, he wrote a daily newspaper column that appeared in The New York Times and some 400 other newspapers, starred in boffo Hollywood films, and was one of the most beloved figures in the country.

As for the examples of his “Wit & Wisdom,” I didn’t recognize any of them as an actual Rogers quote. Moreover, for various reasons, most of them didn’t sound like him. Take No. 8. The very idea that Will Rogers would use the word pee in a public forum is extremely unlikely, that he would use observation only slightly less so. In addition, he wasn’t fond of “three kinds of x” gags — or gags in general, for that matter — and, among the many wholesome things he championed, reading wasn’t one of them.

But I didn’t want to rely on my subjective sense, so turned for checking to four reliable sources: a quotations page at the Will Rogers Memorial website (it says, “Please note that there are many quotes on the internet attributed to Will Rogers that are not his”); The Yale Book of Quotations; Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator website; and Wikiquote. There is admittedly a chance of false negatives — a chance that even though a quote isn’t listed in any of the sources, Rogers nevertheless said it — but I would say the risk is a small one. Here’s what I find.

  • The “spurs” quote: fake.
  • The “chewing tobacco” quote: fake.
  • The “cow cake” quote: fake.
  • The “arguing with a woman” quote: fake.
  • The “find yourself in a hole” quote: fake.
  • The “double your money” quote: fake.

And so on.

Now, you may have noticed that I skipped Nos. 4 and 5. I actually found them on Wikiquote, along with the “electric fence” bit, and No. 11, the one about “lettin’ the cat outta the bag” (the sort of dialect Rogers rarely if ever engaged in). They are attributed to a 2001 book called The Friars Club Bible of Jokes, Pokes, Roasts, and Toasts, and I would bet my annual royalties from Will Rogers: A Biography that they’re fake, too.

Undoubtedly, bogus quotes have been around for a long time — most notably in the case of Yogi Berra, who really did say (according to The Yale Book of Quotations), “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Apparently, some people, when they come across or up with a formulation that seems witty or clever, feel the need to credit it (depending on its particular qualities), to Berra, Rogers, Twain, Wilde, Churchill, or Shaw. With the advent of the internet, these false attributions have been able to spread like an especially merciless invasive species. Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and both Donald Trump (on Instagram) and the Republican Party (on Twitter) posted a meme quoting Lincoln as saying, “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” As the Car Talk guys liked to say, “Bo-o-o-o-gus!”

It’s too bad in the case of Will Rogers, because the things he said are so much better than the things he didn’t. I’ll leave you with a sampling, all of which have the seal of approval of the Will Rogers Memorial:

Ten men in the country could buy the world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat.

The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has.

If you live right, death is a Joke to you as far as fear is concerned.

When the judgment day comes, civilization will have an alibi: “I never took a human life I only sold the fellow the gun to take it with.”

Everybody is ignorant. Only on different subjects.

What all of us know put together don’t mean anything. Nothing don’t mean anything. We are here for a spell and pass on. Anyone who thinks that civilization has advanced is an egotist.

That’s one thing about Republican Presidents. They never went in much for plans. They only had one plan. It says “Boys, my head is turned. Just get it while you can.”

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