As German chancellor Olaf Scholz was concluding his speech in the European Parliament to mark Europe Day, my attention focused as I heard him say the name “Oscar Wilde”.
US president Joe Biden is far from the only politician who is fond of quoting the Irish. John Hume is a favourite in Strasbourg, and last month, the moral authority of none other than Bono was appealed to in an announcement by the European Commission.
But I hadn’t heard Wilde used before, and I listened carefully. According to the official English translation provided by the German diplomatic service, Scholz said: “To quote Oscar Wilde, ‘The future belongs to those who recognise possibilities before they become obvious’”.
The words struck me as somehow lacking the resonance of the famous Irish wit.
The writer’s most famous bon mots are mostly lines said by characters in his plays, which began to be compiled during his lifetime as famous epigrams.
They tend to come with a “kick” in the latter part of the sentence that subverts the hearer’s initial expectations, like: “whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.”
They often have a self-mocking humour that suggests the speaker’s decadence, like Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
Or they come with an almost tragic sense of wonder at art and beauty: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The quotation by chancellor Scholz sounded more like something you might find framed and hanging in the staff room of a multinational corporation or shared on LinkedIn by the caffeinated founder of a fintech start-up.
It didn’t sound like a 19th century sentence – or sentiment.
This was a rare – perhaps the only – scenario in which a particular expertise was called for, and I could rush breathless to the rescue as an English literature graduate.
So I sprang into action, by sharing my doubts on Twitter with the remark “I’m not convinced Oscar Wilde said this.”
In response, the Austrian journalist Oliver Grimm drew my attention to the work of Gerald Krieghofer.
An expert in the work of Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, Krieghofer was bothered by how many quotations were incorrectly attributed to the writer, who was known to insist on absolute precision in the printing of his works during his lifetime.
He began blogging about these errors, and then expanded his work to fact-check all manner of misquotations in the German language, dubbing remarks that are attributed to the wrong person “cuckoo quotes”.
According to Krieghofer’s research, the quote used by Scholz originates in the foreword to the 1983 book The Marketing Imagination, written by the late Harvard Business School professor and economist Theodore Levitt.
A mistake dating back to 1992 means that among English-speakers, the quote is often misattributed to the businessman John Sculley, an error that dominates Google search results.
Meanwhile in the German-speaking world, it took off in another direction. Krieghofer has tracked its initial misattribution to Oscar Wilde to two disco entrepreneurs who used it to promote the renovation of the Saarbrücken municipal swimming pool in 2004.
From there the Wilde cuckoo quote spread widely in German-language social media and newspapers, culminating in it being used in a speech by president Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2021 and then by chancellor Scholz this week.
False quotations and misattributions have an ancient history. Marie Antoinette, for example, probably never said “let them eat cake”. Rousseau had already attributed this remark to an unnamed “great princess” at a time when the archduchess was a child in Austria who had never been to France, and in any case the word used was “brioche”.
But the viral dynamics of the internet have made the problem so common that the phenomenon has itself become a meme. One joke in circulation reads: “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true: Abraham Lincoln.”
“Misattributed citations are not a new phenomenon, but this mass of misattributed citations is new,” Krieghofer told me by email.
“The main reason for this is their spread over social media and the many online collections of quotes that present unchecked alleged and real quotes without citing the source.”
From such an online resource, Krieghofer theorises, a speech writer for Scholz probably selected the false Oscar Wilde quote.
A German government source acknowledged that there appeared to have been a mistake.
“Obviously we think that many smart thoughts originate from Ireland,” the official said.