Saturday, April 15, 2006

Misquotation

Some of the most loved religious and cultural works are widely misquoted - including the Bible, Shakespeare, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind. Is this a unconscious way of improving on the original? Is there a sense in which the popular misquote is now the "right" version?

Kevin Kelly, in his book Out of Control, says that an essential rule for the emergence of complex order is to Honor Your Errors.
A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance from the ordinary requires a new game, or a new territory. But the process of going outside the conventional method, game, or territory is indistinguishable from error. Even the most brilliant act of human genius, in the final analysis, is an act of trial and error. "To be an Error and to be Cast out is a part of God's Design," wrote the visionary poet William Blake. Error, whether random or deliberate, must become an integral part of any process of creation. Evolution can be thought of as systematic error management.
Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) offers a mischievous interpretation of a recent book by Bart Erhman called Misquoting Jesus (Amazon link, Adams review). He suggests that the errors created by scribes are in fact part of God's Purpose. God works in mysterious ways.

Some obvious typographical errors in the printed Bible were quickly identified and eliminated, and this seems to confirm Blake's principle. For example, the so-called Fool's Bible. Many of these errors are described in "Challenges in Printing Early English Bibles", by Ray L. Huntington et al (The Religious Educator, Vol 5 No 1, pdf). I expect Scott would particularly like the Wicked Bible, in which the commandment against adultery was misprinted.

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