Proving that a quotation is fake (either attributed to the wrong person or never said at all) is difficult—there’s always the possibility that the one place I didn’t think to look was the place where it’s written. Most of the time, all I can say is that I was unable to locate a particular quotation in a primary source and strongly suspect that it’s fake. It’s a little easier with misattributed quotations because a little burrowing will often turn up the true origin of the quotation.
Note that when I call a quotation “fake,” I’m not implying malice or ill will on anyone’s part. Fake quotations spring from all sorts of simple mistakes (misremembering, accidental dropping of a citation and then another name getting attached to it, etc.)
- Secondary sources are acceptable only if they cite a definite primary source. There are lots of books of compiled “quotations” that are utterly devoid of citations; books like this don’t constitute an acceptable source and are in fact one of the primary sources of fake quotations. Don’t even get me started on most “quotation” websites.
- The quotation must be from a Catholic or near-Catholic source. I note especially C.S. Lewis, who is (deservedly) quite popular among Catholics. There are of course lots of quotations falsely attributed that have nothing to do with Catholicism, but someone else can hunt them down.
- Since I’m not writing a web site of Catholic quotations, I’m generally not posting accurate quotations unless they look like fakes.
What I do
- The smell test. Does it sound like something the person in question could have said? Or does it sound a lot more like free-floating 21st Century “spirituality”? Or does it just not sound like others things the person did say? Obviously this test doesn’t rule out a quotation as legitimate, but it does suggest which ones are most likely to be false and need following up.
- Check Wikiquote, which provides citations with verified quotes. If it’s there with a citation, the search is done. If it’s in the falsely attributed section of the article, it’s probably false (though I sometimes read through the discussion to see why the editor decided it’s false). If it’s in the unknown section or if it’s not there at all, I keep going.
- Search the Internet for the quotation. I usually search for the quotation and the name of the person who is said to have said it. When I’m searching for a popular misquotation, this usually doesn’t work because the top hits are quote aggregation web sites that repeat the quotation without any reference to a source (sometimes there’s a secondary source given, but that secondary source usually doesn’t have a citation). But sometimes I get lucky and find that someone else has done the leg work for me.
- Try searching Google Books specifically. This usually won’t turn up anything I didn’t find in the previous step, but sometimes it works.
- Search the works of the person who is said to have said it. New Advent and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library are two good sources for English translations. I know enough Latin that I sometimes have success at Documenta Catholica Omnia.
When I’ve done all of these things and haven’t found a source, then I regard the quotation as dubious at best. Depending on how well the last step went, I can be pretty sure that the alleged quotation is in fact a fake.