Gnomologist: A person who practices gnomology; a collector or researcher of quotations. Coined from the Greek gnome (thought, judgment, saying, or maxim) and the Latin suffix -ologist. Gnomologist first appeared in English in 1813 (“the gnomologists, or versifiers of short moral apophthegms”*); the adjective gnomic showed up two years later. Gnomology had been in use since 1645. Gnome in the sense of “short pithy saying” had been around since 1645; the alternate meaning—“one of a race of diminutive spirits fabled to inhabit the interior of the earth”—is believed to have been created by Alexander Pope in “The Rape of the Lock” (1714).
Gnomologist was in the news last week because of a misattributed quotation that appears on a new U.S. postage stamp. The stamp depicts Maya Angelou, the late author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but the quotation next to her photograph came from a children’s book written by Joan Walsh Anglund**.
This is not an instance of plagiarism — it doesn’t seem that Ms. Angelou, who died last year, claimed the words as her own. It’s far more likely that the very appealing line struck a chord with the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” who quoted it herself in many interviews. (The Postal Service noted that Ms. Angelou’s family approved the line for use on the stamp.) But the subsequent misattribution is a textbook example of a widespread phenomenon in the world of quotations: Churchillian Drift.
The term was coined by the quotations expert (or gnomologist) Nigel Rees, who maintains the “Quote ... Unquote” newsletter and who broadcasts a quiz show of the same name on BBC Radio 4 in Britain. Essentially, Churchillian Drift is the process by which any particularly apt quotation is mistakenly attributed to a more famous person in the same field.
Another good source for gnomology is the website Quote Investigator, which has researched quotations ascribed to such perennial favorites as Mark Twain (who never said or wrote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”), Benjamin Franklin (who did indeed write “Time is money”), and, of course, Winston Churchill (who probably never said “If you’re going through hell, keep going”).
* Easier to pronounce than to spell: AP-uh-them.
** It’s merely coincidental, I’m sure, that both authors’ surnames begin with Ang-.