“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
So goes an oft-cited Oscar Wilde quote. Except it’s unlikely he said it. At least, he didn’t write it. And if he did, it’s 50/50 that he’d have used a semi-colon.
That hasn’t stopped a cottage industry from cropping up to sell the quote in elegant typeface, framed in posters and printed on coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. One motivational speaker and self-proclaimed “thought leader” has even used the quote as the title of a self-help book, along with the unwittingly ironic subtitle: Transform Your Life with the Power of Authenticity.
I’m not knockin' the quote. “Everyone else is taken” is inarguably a good line. But it's a bit painful to see marketers and writers credit it to Wilde amid conversations regarding, of all things, authenticity.
Wilde actually did provide a quote to predict his co-opting by consumers: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
Wilde is not alone in being falsely attributed. The internet has ushered an entire genre of misquotations starring Wilde and other pithy geniuses such as Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin. Because these historical figures did, in fact, record troves of quotable sentiments during their lifetimes, it can be tough to distinguish their genuine witticisms from the apocryphal.
But for quote-mongers, there’s something akin to religious reverence for the charming words of celebrated thinkers. Put a clever phrase in the mouth of an idol, and it may be construed as profound. The association lends it importance, and whatever “truth” it imparts becomes magnified.
Sadly, the truth of Wilde’s sexuality saw him persecuted by men whose disdain arose from others’ opinions, and misinterpretations of quotable materials. Ironically, his public outing and martyr’s end cemented his legacy, so that the masterful language he did leave behind came to us fortified by his identity. Now he’s become a beacon of authenticity for the like souls who followed.
It’s this idea that’s demonstrated by the lead character of A Man of No Importance: a closeted bus conductor in 1960’s Dublin, finding a way to his true self through the words of Wilde, uttered like gospel. Perhaps Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde did not specifically issue every refrigerator magnet-worthy quote, but he’s likely the greatest inspiration for the culture of self-acceptance so important to so many in modern times. So if the message holds, the words may as well be his.
To quote Dorothy Parker, one of few figures in history who could stand toe to toe with that Irishman’s wit: “If, with the literate, I am / Impelled to try an epigram / I never seek to take the credit / We all assume that Oscar said it.”