Column One

In praise of plagiarism

Now and then an old friend goes through my column, highlights a few phrases, and compliments me on what he calls my "gifted plagiarism." It seems he's picked out various phrases I've borrowed from my betters--and is kind enough to mention only some of them.

My friend calls it plagiarism; I call it allusion.

After all, when Shakespeare or Cervantes has said it better, why say it worse?

When caught red-handed with my hands on somebody else's epigraph, the best defense I can frame is, of course, in somebody else's words. Namely, Tom Lehrer's. And specifically his ditty in honor of the great mathematician Lobachevsky. For the full effect, Professor (of mathematics) Lehrer's little ballad needs to be sung off-key after a couple of cold ones to the accompaniment of a tinny piano and a loud, vigorous Hey! at the end of each chorus, complete with a stage Russian accent:

"I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!" And on to the verse: "Plagiarize!/ Let no one else's work evade your eyes/ Remember why the good Lord made your eyes/ So don't shade your eyes/ But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize--/ Only be sure always to call it please . . . Research!"

In these computerized times, that kind of research no longer takes the premeditation it did when one had to laboriously type out a column. Now, quick, without thinking, we press a key or two and, bingo, somebody else's wit and wisdom can appear under our name. If and when the slip is noticed, always call it ... Accidental! ("Gosh, I must have copied that in my research and forgotten it wasn't mine.")

Some of us live in fear that we might in all innocence do just that. It may not be forgivable, but it's understandable. Some language is so irresistible that we come to think of it as our own. We can't help ourselves.

There was a time when Joe Biden wasn't vice president of the United States but a U.S. senator from Delaware, and was once so impressed by some British lord's eloquent speech recounting his life that he adopted much of the estimable lord's life story as his own. Without any need for attribution.

It's understandable why others' good stories and perfect phrases should be irresistible. What's not understandable is why people would steal bad prose, or sappy memories. It's not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.

The late Molly Ivins is my exemplar in these matters. Once she was caught sounding word-for-word like Florence King--accidentally, of course. But let it be said for Miss Molly that she had the good taste to steal from the very best. Originality is a much overrated virtue compared to good taste in collecting.

To quote a once celebrated Southern author, James Branch Cabell, "very few sane architects commence an edifice by planting and rearing the oaks which are to compose its beams and stanchions. You take over all such supplies ready hewn, and choose by preference time-seasoned timber. Since Homer's prime a host of other great creative writers have recognised this axiom when they too began to build: and 'originality' has [become] like chess and democracy, a Mecca for little minds.'' Hear, hear! Indeed, I've borrowed/stolen the phrase, "It was wholly a pleasure," from the invariable opening Mr. Cabell used when answering letters from correspondents whose opinions he would proceed to devastate. I mean it as a tribute. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. But always call it . . . Research!

Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has been taking some time off. An earlier version of this column appeared October 15, 2000.

Editorial on 01/25/2015

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