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Who said it first? Who really knows? - Clay Wilson

I admit it. I'm guilty. I plagiarized.

But I didn't mean to. In fact, I wasn't even aware I was doing it – at least, not to the person I turned out to have plagiarized.

I was feeling pretty good about last week's column. I especially liked the last sentence, which said I am able to do something today because I have stood on the shoulders of pioneers from the past.

I knew I was using an idea from a university speech by President Bush (the current one). But that was OK, because I attributed the idea to him.

That's not plagiarism. That's citing.

But the plagiarism – which Webster defines as "the offering of another's artistic or literary work as one's own" – came in at a deeper level.

I wasn't aware of it until Mike, our government reporter, complimented me on the column. He said something about me quoting Isaac Newton on "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Then I vaguely recalled hearing that quote before, although I wasn't so sure it was Newton who said it. So I logged onto the Internet, and within a few minutes confirmed that Isaac Newton was the source.

According to the Columbia World of Quotations online, British mathematician and physicist Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, "If I have seen further (than certain other men) it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Great metaphor, right? Besides his scientific and mathematical genius, Newton must have been a verbal whiz, too.

Not so fast. A query on "standing on the shoulders of giants" also turned up a Bartlett's Quotations online citation of English clergyman/scholar Robert Burton.

Burton's quote, from his 1621 "Anatomy of Melancholy," was, "I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself."

Bartlett's annotation said Burton was referring to a quote, attributed by the first century A.D. Roman poet Lucan, to Didacus Stella. The most plausible information I could run down without checking all 200-plus results returned by my query on Didacus Stella is that he was a Roman general of the first century B.C.

(An interesting side note – at least, I found it interesting: A posting on an Internet bulletin board said sociologist Robert Merton, in his book "On the Shoulders of Giants," identified the Didacus Stella quoted by Burton as Spanish theologian Diego de Estella.

In any case, at least Burton cited somebody. But if he is indeed quoting the Roman general rather than the Spanish theologian, odds are he forgot to mention that he was quoting Lucan's recording of Stella's quote. It all gets rather circular, doesn't it?

The point I started out to make is that, despite the well-founded recent concerns about blatant plagiarism (simply lifting other newspapers' work without citing the sources) that have shaken the newspaper industry, plagiarism is apparently an old, proud tradition.

Whether he intends it or not, if one writes, odds are that somewhere down the line he's going to pen an idea – perhaps even a phrase – that someone else has already conceived.

(Frustratingly enough, while searching for Didacus Stella I came across a 1987 piece by Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen entitled, "Avoiding Plagiarism is Pretty Much Impossible." Although I didn't read it until I wrote my column, Quillen's says pretty much the same thing as mine, even down to the "on the shoulders of giants" example.)

So I guess in next week's column I'll have to apologize to Mr. Quillen.

Or I could just use another quotation, this one from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:9: " – there is no new thing under the sun."

Clay Wilson is the education reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.