There is a kind of person who, if in the course of love-making he were to hear his love playfully whisper, "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" would stop everything, bolt upright, and point out to this lady that "wherefore" does not mean "where" but "why." Accordingly, he would would explain, it makes no sense to ask "wherefore" out of context, since Juliet was asking Romeo why he had to be a Montague. (The feuding families, you see.) Finally, as his love would be walking out the door in a daze, he would show her that misquotation led to her error. She would never have made such a mistake had she remembered that in the text of the play there is no comma after "thou."
This same kind of person often reviews books or writes letter to editors. As letter-writer he will note that while he agrees with every point and argument made in this or that article, he nevertheless was either "dismayed" or "outraged" to see that the author had attributed the phrase "Go west, young man" to Horace Greeley, whereas ("of course") the phrase had been coined by John Soule in the Terre Haute Express ("1851")
As a reviewer he will complain that he was enthralled with John Keats's "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" until he came to the line in which Keats mistook Cortez for Balboa (or, as subsequent research suggests, Antonio d'Abreu). After that, the poem was ruined for him.
For just such a person was conceived "The Dictionary of Misinformation." This remarkable book is the work of Tom Burnam, who, from his lively tone and writing style, does not at all seem the kind of fellow for whom he labored. Yet Burnam has provided a feast for the mind bent on accuracy at all cost. If, for example, you believe that in the most famous sea battle of the Civil War, the Monitor fought the Merrimac, prepare for a shock.
I confess I was in for more shocks than most people when I first came across Burnam's dictionary, because I make more errors of fact than most people. I don't know if I ever deeply believed that porcupines shoot their quills, but I certainly enjoyed picturing the event. I was dead sure that the word "posh" was an acronym for "Post Outward - Starboard Home" until I read otherwise. I was equally sure that a parson's table was so called because it looks spare and simple, not because it was developed by the Parsons School of Design.
The book is full of such riches, which I would display here were not the exercise one that would begin in astonishment and end in depression. Instead, let me repeat that Burnam's dictionary represents a fascinating feat, and at the same time urge you to burn the first copy you see.
The danger in works like the "Dictionary of Misinformation," or the impulses that go into them, is not that they encourage nitpicking, but that they discourage happy error. Bad enough to break stride in the heat of passion to point out the difference between "why" and "wherefore." Worse to have no lover or high school humorist ever again recite the "O Romeo" line without placing it in the proper context. Misinformation - and I do not say this solely for self-protection - has great value. A world without it would be as prosaic as the real last words of Nathan Hale.
What would life be like if everyone knew that Panama hats come from Ecuador, that french fries come from Belgium, that Garbo never said, "I want to be alone"?
How would big children impress little children if it were common knowledge that Hitler's real name was not Schicklgruber, that Marie Antoinette did not say, "Let them eat cake"?
Eventually Marie Antoinette's name would disappear from popular discourse because we would have nothing else to attach it to. Ditto for Louis XIV who did not say, "L'etat, c'est moi"; for Barbara Fritchie; for Mrs. O'Leary and cow. In short, not only would our language lose lustre, without misinformation; it would also lose some of its oldest friends.
Finally, consider the friends themselves. Think of the oppossum to whose name is inaccurately owed a unique species of cleverness. Were the possum to be removed from discourse merely on the grounds that it does not play dead when cornered, the animal's self-esteem would be reduced to zero. Moreover, the removal of its name would also remove a human activity that is conveyed by no other expression (there is no humor, no wiliness, in "playing dead"). If the world could no longer play possum because the possum can't, both it and the possum would be sadder, and no wiser.
"The Dictionary of Misinformation" cities the expression "Drop the gun, Louis" as an example of gross misinformation because Humphrey Bogart did not actually say that in "Casablanca," but said "Not so fast, Louis," instead. Yet the best example of the practical value of misinformation also occurs in "Casablanca," when Bogart is asked why he came to the city in the first place. He says he came for the waters, and his interrogator asks: "What waters? We're in the desert."
"I was misinformed," says Bogart. Here's looking at you, babe (kid?).