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Off with their heads! Why are Lewis Carroll misquotes so common online?

Alison Flood
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

As Oscar Wilde famously never said, don’t trust Goodreads as a source for quotes. A month after the Royal Mint released a new £2 coin to celebrate HG Wells with an inaccurate quotation (and a tripod with four legs), Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll is the latest to be immortalised in currency through words they never wrote.

A collection of 50p coins celebrating 150 years since the conclusion of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tales has been released by the Westminster Collection, who described them as featuring the characters’ “best known quotes”. Unfortunately, eagle-eyed experts spotted that, though some of the lines feature on Goodreads and numerous inspirational posters, they were never penned by Carroll.

The White Rabbit never says, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get,” nor does the Mad Hatter say, “I am under no obligation to make sense to you.” The quote attributed to the Queen of Hearts – “That’s enough! Off with their head” – is almost right; she was after “heads”.

Dr Franziska Kohlt, editor of the Lewis Carroll Review, says she’s always spotting Carroll misquotes. “I saw a post about the coins on a collectors’ page, and almost automatically went checking for the quote, thinking, ‘Oh I hope they haven’t – oh no they have,” she said. “Misattributed Alice quotes are absolutely everywhere.”

Kohlt said that the “hurrier I go” and the “I am under no obligation!” quotes are “absolutely not Carroll quotes, as much as the internet insists”. “You wouldn’t believe how often we have to deal with these misquotes. I even find them in academic papers,” she said.

“It’s far from the first time a misquote or error appears on literature-themed tender, so it’s really frustrating when this keeps happening. It’s so easy to check.”

Often, Alice misquotes can be sourced back to Disney adaptations, either the 1951 animated film or Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action version. Dutch fan Lenny de Rooy tries to keep on top of misattributions at Alice-in-Wonderland.net. “Pretty images and merchandise with quotes attributed to Lewis Carroll or the Alice in Wonderland books are popping up everywhere nowadays,” she writes. “Unfortunately, many of these quotes are misattributed: they are not from the Alice books, nor from their author. Please don’t spread the misconception!”

Rooy can find no source, however, for the widely used “hurrier I go” and doesn’t mention “I am under no obligation to make sense to you”. In his book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you” – but how he became mixed up with the Mad Hatter is unclear.

The Carroll coins are intended for collectors and are not produced by the Royal Mint, which recently misquoted HG Wells on a £2 coin, as well as attributing a quote (“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”) to Jane Austen on her £10 note, when it was actually said by her character Caroline Bingley, who has no interest in books. The Carroll coins are legal tender in the Isle of Man, but given their price – £31.25 for a set of five 50ps – they are not likely to be in general circulation.

A spokesperson for the distributor told the Guardian: “The quotes are commonly associated with the characters, although as you suggest, do not necessarily come directly from the original work.”

As Carroll would say: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Or was that George Harrison?