April 26, 2014

The ‘Pen vs. Sword’ Quote

        When someone wrote on the Zoss List on Oct 27, 1997, “The reason I don’t collect swords is, as we all know, ‘The Pen is mightier than the sword’”, Steve Lehman wrote this reply.  “Sorry for the literary nitpicking, but that ‘pen vs. sword’ quote is one of the most misquoted quotes EVER, and turns the original quote on its head, somewhat.  The real quote is, ‘Under the rule of men entirely just, the pen is mightier than the sword’.  Since in most cases, rulers are not ‘entirely just’ and are far from perfect, the pen is not mightier than the sword.  Unless the pen is actually a pistol, in which case the well aimed pen can be mightier than the sword.”  It’s like saying, “In other words, never”, as Janis wrote on the Afrocity blog on June 25, 2009, after she also used the misquoted version of the quote.  I wonder where she got it.  Steve used the quote again in a post on Zoss on May 18, 1999, concerning steel nibs marked Krupp, saying that maybe the giant steel and armament manufacturer was covering all bets”.  But then Steve got the quote wrong as well, both in 1997 and 1999.  He also misquoted the saying, but I liked his version better.  Let me explain in my round about way.
        I had great fun composing the puzzle.  Acrostic puzzles similar to this one appeared in The Atlantic magazine, and I decided to try to make a similar puzzle with a fountain pen theme.  I started one evening, just to see whether it was possible, and was ready to give up the moment I ended up with an excess of unusable vowels or consonants, or not enough letters.  You can see some of the failed attempts in the “Extra bonus clues” section.  I wrote the whole thing out with a fountain pen, and finished it in one manic night, ending up with the completed acrostic at about 4:00 AM.  The sun was just rising, so it must have been a spring or summer night, and you could call it a manic midsummer night’s wet ink dream.
        After my acrostic puzzle was published in the Writing Equipment Society Journal, no.57, Spring 2000, p.52, I got an email message from Arnold Greenwood in Britain on Apr 21, 2000.  He wrote, “Congratulations on your ingenuity in composing the acrostic, although the clues were not entirely of the standard I have become used to from solving The Times puzzle”, and he discussed the puzzle’s “double acrosticity”, a neologism he begged leave to use in light of my quote from Finnegans Wake, but then he went on to ask where I got that new version of the quote, or revision of the quote, or misquote.  “My Oxford Dictionary of Quotations gives ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great’, not ‘Under the rule of men entirely just’.  Have I missed something?”  I wrote back commending him on his neologism, and to say he was right about the correct phrasing of the Bulwer-Lytton quote from his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy, Act II, scene II, but that I didn’t know where I got the misquote.  It should be ‘beneath’ and ‘great’, not ‘under’ and ‘just’.  I also said that I would do some backtracking to try to find the exact textual source, the place where I got that variant of the line, explaining that I might have got it from a corrupted or faulty mention in another book of quotations.
        That’s when I ran across the 1997 email message by Steve Lehman in my private archive of the Zoss List.  I emailed Steve and asked him about his version of the quote.  I complemented him on it, saying that I liked his version better because it was more meaningful than the original.  What exactly is a ruler who is “entirely great”?  It sounds like Valley-Girl talk, totally.  So I asked him where he got this much better variation of the old saw.  He wrote back that he could not remember where he heard or read the misquote, and that it was “entirely possible that I just remembered the spirit of the quote, not the letter, but I do think someone else did the misquoting originally”.  And then he mused, “Is it possible that Bulwer-Lytton is actually quoting Cardinal Richelieu?”.  You mean, “La plume est plus puissante que l’épée”?
        I seem to have found the quote independently around Mar 16, 1999, and when I did a search of the now-defunct Zoss Archives on eScribe, I found Steve’s post on May 18, 1999.  All I have to show for it is a piece of paper with the misquote and the date Mar 16 written on it, but I neglected to write down where I found it, so I don’t know where I heard or read it, either.  Like Steve, I don’t think I did the misquoting originally, either, but I do think it is a much better version of the opening phrase to that sentence.
        And sorry for the further literary nitpicking, but I’m Canadian.

George Kovalenko.


This post is an explanatory footnote to my Acrostic puzzle.  But I didn’t include any links to the Zoss messages I quoted in this post because I couldn’t, since the Zoss Archive on eScribe is dead.]