Unattributed Witticisms in a Graduation Speech:

Eric Muller (IsThatLegal?) points to more unattributed copying in a dean's graduation speech -- but this is copying of someone else's witticisms, rather than of someone else's serious analysis.

I'm not sure whether such copying is particularly bad. Witticisms, jokes, and other amusing turns of phrase lose much of their charm if you need to prefix them with "As X said" or "This reminds me of Y's joke" or "Here's a joke that Z tells" -- especially if you need to repeat these lines a couple of dozen times in the course of a speech. In practice, we tend to avoid giving credit by the simple expedient of not knowing whom to credit; precisely because people retell jokes without attributing them, we usually have no idea who first said something. But what if you know the source? Or what if you can find it by googling? Do you have an obligation to track down the sources and give them credit in the speech, even if that means boring and annoying the audience?

Now one reaction might be "tough luck": If you don't want to give credit, make up your own gags, or omit them altogether. But speeches like this are an odd genre -- they are generally expected to have some wit in them, but they must often be written by people who aren't professional wits. We can reasonably demand, I think, that a professional comic come up with his own material; I am told that comics who are known for stealing material are condemned by their fellows. But should we really ask this of the many people whose non-comedy jobs nonetheless require them to give speeches that include some comic relief?

Recall also that of the two chief harms of plagiarism -- harm to the reader, who is led to give the plagiarist undeserved credit for originality, and harm to the source, who is denied deserved credit for his originality -- only the second is potentially present here. People generally don't expect humor to be original (again, possibly except when a professional comic is speaking); if they give the speaker credit, it tends to be credit for selecting good gags, not necessarily for crafting them. So is this harm to the original source serious enough to require (1) boring speeches, (2) speeches punctuated with annoying giving of credit, (3) speakers investing a huge amount of effort in coming up with their own gags, something that isn't in a dean's job description, or (4) professional gagwriters hired by graduation speakers?

Finally, if I'm right that most of us don't come up with our own jokes, it's pretty likely that the person from whom the work is copied isn't the original author of the gag. If one is writing a scholarly article, the solution is to drop a footnote just in case (such footnotes are much less distracting to readers than verbal footnotes are to listeners), or to invest some effort in deciding who the gag's original author may be. But I'm not sure that the same should be required for graduation speeches. (Reprints of the speech are a different matter.)

Or am I mistaken? Should we really have a give-credit-or-discard-the-gag norm, even in oral presentations? If so, what if you know the gag isn't yours, but you don't know whose it is; how much of an obligation do you have to try to track down the original source? Should this norm extend to television and radio comments, or is broadcasting time so limited that you can drop the attribution there even if you can't in a commencement speech?

I've enabled comments.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Unattributed Witticisms in a Graduation Speech:
  2. Blogger Catches University Dean in Commencement Address Plagiarism:
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I'd say it depends on the material in question. I once attended a dinner at which physicist and educator Dr. Alexander Taffel told without attribution, beyond noting that it was an old joke, the old joke about a zookeeper who finds one of his monkeys with a copy of "Origin of Species" in one hand, and a copy of the Bible in the other hand. In my opinion that was quite proper. On the other hand, if a gag is still fresh and still identified with one comic, it would be appropriate for the speaker to say "Not, as Seinfeld taught us to say, that there's anything wrong with that."

Commencement speakers shouldn't be doing standup routines anyway. They should be using material that is old. I disagree that it is bad, or detrimental to the telling, to give the audience a warning "I am about to say something funny". But then, as I did above, I tend to be too wordy. Still, a speaker can slip in "as the old story goes" or "as Russell Baker said on a similar stage".

I'm not sure about the shorter speeches, like the radio and television broadcasts you mention. Those audiences are usually paying better attention and don't need to be reminded "Here comes something you'll enjoy hearing." Yes it takes away from the wit, but again, this is not a comedy routine: If there are that many jokes or witticisms that the informal attributions are going to disrupt the rhythm of the short speech, there are probably too many, and the gags themselves are disruptive.
6.15.2005 7:47am
Eric Muller (mail) (www):
Eugene, I agree with your point, at least in principle. There's no problem with starting off a speech with someone else's joke; I'm sure it happens all the time. (The Le Beau incident may not be such a case on the facts, though; more on that below.)

But your point strikes me as missing the bigger picture: Dean Le Beau's apparent copying from Russell Baker at the start of the speech precedes his near-verbatim copying of Cornel West for the guts of the speech. When challenged on the copying of Cornel West, Dean Le Beau issued a statement explaining it (and maintaining that it was not plagiarism) without mentioning that he took the opening of his speech essentially verbatim from a speech by Russell Baker. It was only through an additional google search that the Baker copying was revealed. And it turns out that both speeches (Baker's and West's) are to be found on the same website that compiles great commencement addresses. In short, the copying of Baker, to my eyes, seriously undermines the credibility of the defense of the copying of West. (And it's not just my eyes: see Ralph Luker's comments at the history blog Cliopatria.)

Now, as to your point about the permissibility of borrowing speech-starting witticisms without attribution: is this really such a case? Consider the two passages:

Russell Baker, Connecticut College, May 1995:

"In a sensible world I would now congratulate the Class of 1995 and sit down without further comment. I am sure the Class of 1995 wishes I would do so. Unfortunately for the Class of 1995 we do not live in a sensible world.

"We live in a world far more slavish in its obedience to ancient custom than we like to admit. And ancient commencement-day custom demands that somebody stand up here and harangue the poor graduates until they beg for mercy. The ancient rule has been: make them suffer."

Bryan Le Beau, UMKC, December 2003:

"In a sensible world, and it I were a sensible person, I would simply stop right here and sit down without further comment. And you would probably prefer I do so. Unfortunately, we do not live in a sensible world. Instead, we live in a world far more slavish in its obedience to ancient custom than we like to admit, and I have been asked to contribute to that slavish custom. Commencement-day custom -- dating to the 12th century, as Chancellor Gilliland just noted -- demands that someone stand up here and harangue you poor graduates until you beg for mercy. The ancient rule has been: Wear a funny hat, and make them suffer."

There's no problem with a rule that says you don't have to attribute jokes. ("How many college graduates does it take to screw in a light bulb?" and that sort of thing.) But this isn't a joke (as you note by calling it a "witticism"). It is instead a fairly elaborate introduction designed to note the specific occasion and get people smiling. I see a difference between using the punchline without attribution (the ancient rule for commencement speakers has been to "make them suffer") and using the whole opening, including its rather unusual word choices ("harangue," "slavish in its obedience to ancient custom," "beg for mercy"). The latter is not just treating a joke as community property. To my eye, it's unattributed copying.
6.15.2005 8:01am
Ann (mail) (www):
There seems to be lots more academic plagiarism around than I would expect. See this recent example by a well-known historian.

From the Cliopatia Blog at History News Network

RALPH E. LUKER: Khalidi Accused ...
Just within the last 24 hours, accusations of plagiarism against Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University's Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature, have appeared on the net. The accusations seem first to have appeared yesterday in "Rashid Khalidi ... A Case of Plagiarism?" on, a pseudonymous blog…

Update: After examining the evidence presented at, I believe that: 1) the author of "Jerusalem: A Concise History" crossed the line of acceptable paraphrase from Kamil Jamil el Asali, "Jerusalem in History: Notes on the Origins of the City and Its Traditions of Tolerance," Arab Studies Quarterly, XVI (Fall 1994); and 2) the implicit evidence of a crude cover-up, as indicated by this ascription of authorship compared with the Wayback Machine's recovery of prior ascription, is additionally damaging.
6.15.2005 9:03am
I think that this is a fuzzy, gray area that doesn't lend itself to easy rules-based resolution.

2 thoughts on graduation speeches:

1. I think that the harm to the listener is the more important one in most cases, but whether attribution is necessary should depend on how likely the listener is to mistake the material for original content.

For example, I've sat through approximately 10 commencement speeches in the past 5 years, and most of them were bland, forgettable ways of telling the audience to "think outside the box" and "go out and make a difference." I wouldn't feel harmed in the least or feel any differently about the speech to find out afterward that parts of the speech were copied without attribution. The job of many commencement speakers seems to be to fill silence and lend prestige to the ceremony.

That said, I would be offended if I found out afterward that the truly witty and thoughtful speeches were plagiarized, that the "personal" anecdotes were actually made up or actually someone else's stories, etc. I'm not sure where to draw the line. Some witticisms and expressions, because they are either well-known or variations on a common theme, are so unlikely to be mistaken for original material that I don't think attribution is necessary. If you work in the phrase "there's a sucker born any minute," or start off with some joke about a priest and a rabbi, attribution doesn't seem to me to be necessary.

2. I think that using the words of someone else who is long dead is much less offensive than borrowing from a colleague. The Le Beau/Baker example is really smarmy, and the slight rephrasing looks like a pathetic attempt to either hide it or assuage his conscience. If the same words had been taken from something in the 19th Century, I'd say no attribution, no foul.
6.15.2005 11:21am
roysol (mail):
How about a blanket disclaimer at the beginning? That would take care of the harm to the listener.
6.15.2005 11:50am
Joseph Olson (mail):
When I start a new research project, I often find that I'm making note cards with content that later appears, correctly, to be the equivalent of "the sun rises in the East." I write down statements with cites to X's article that later turn out to be mere repetition of statutory language or text from IRS regulatons. I write down a note that Y says the Smith case establishes proposition A without realizing that anyone who has read that case, as I later do, could only describe it with a near identical statement (and everyone does).

Almost everything that anyone "knows" is a complation of things other people knew first. Other than in pure science, it's a matter of repackaging or reordering to gain a new insight not discovery. That is why most (all?) law review articles are 40 pages long but contain maybe 2 pages of truly "new" insight. It is the nature of humans to learn from others. In fact, our ability to build on the learning of others is what lets each generation expand knowledge (we no longer have to discover that the sun does rise in the East.

Back to my research experience. Sure, I first read these statements in someone's article but I later did my own work by reading the regulations or the relevant case. Often I realized that the Smith case did hold proposition A and that there was only one easily understandable way of stating that (which everyone used). The first draft of my tax book had a thousand extraneous footnotes dealing with matters similar to "the sun rises" so I took them all out. I used a simple question as the basis for deciding what to eliminate. I asked "Have I read the source material (the law, reg or case) so that I (on my own) now know this statement to be accurate?" If so, the statement is now mine and needs no footnote. If not because the statement isn't (in present terms) mine, e.g., I haven't also reached this conclusion through my own reading or I'm not willing to stand behind it, then it gets a footnote. 990 footnotes eliminated. 10 retained which actually have substance and meaning.

If I've done the research corrently, 99% of the resulting knowledge has become mine and I can cite myself as the "expert" (by not providing any citation). The "new" insights that others taught me (and which I did/could not glean from doing the work myself) get footnotes. Actual quotes get footnotes too (this is where most students stumble). But what I now know is mine.
6.15.2005 12:16pm
Jim Fischer (mail):
Geothe got it right some time ago: "Everything has been thought of before, the difficulty is to think of it again", but he probably stole the idea from someone else.
6.15.2005 12:46pm
ed in texas (mail):
How about a compromise? In giving the speech, go without attribution, except in case of major sections, to allow for timing and delivery. BUT, make the speech available afterwards, for the record, (for the yearbook, for the campus paper) in print WITH known credit given. It's more than you'd get from a professional comic.
6.15.2005 1:31pm
Goober (mail):
Or Wilde: "Talent borrows, genius steals."

Er, I mean, me. I said that. All mine.
6.15.2005 1:33pm
ed in texas (mail):
"As the saying goes: To Steal from one is called plagarism. To steal from many is called research"
6.15.2005 2:07pm
James Fulford (mail) (www):
P. G. Wodehouse dealt with unnatributed witticisms in political speech in Psmith in the City in 1910:

'Comrade Jackson,' said Psmith sorrowfully, 'how sad it is in this life of ours to be consistently misunderstood. You know, of course, how wrapped up I am in Comrade Bickersdyke's welfare. You know that all my efforts are directed towards making a decent man of him; that, in short, I am his truest friend. Does he show by so much as a word that he appreciates my labours? Not he. I believe that man is beginning to dislike me, Comrade Jackson.'

'What happened, anyhow? Never mind about Bickersdyke.'

'Perhaps it was mistaken zeal on my part.... Well, I will tell you all. Make a long arm for the shovel, Comrade Jackson, and pile on a few more coals. I thank you. Well, all went quite smoothly for a while. Comrade B. in quite good form. Got his second wind, and was going strong for the tape, when a regrettable incident occurred. He informed the meeting, that while up in the Lake country, fishing, he went to an inn and saw a remarkably large stuffed trout in a glass case. He made inquiries, and found that five separate and distinct people had caught--'

'Why, dash it all,' said Mike, 'that's a frightful chestnut.'

Psmith nodded.

'It certainly has appeared in print,' he said. 'In fact I should have said it was rather a well-known story. I was so interested in Comrade Bickersdyke's statement that the thing had happened to himself that, purely out of good-will towards him, I got up and told him that I thought it was my duty, as a friend, to let him know that a man named Jerome had pinched his story, put it in a book, and got money by it. Money, mark you, that should by rights have been Comrade Bickersdyke's. He didn't appear to care much about sifting the matter thoroughly. In fact, he seemed anxious to get on with his speech, and slur the matter over. But, tactlessly perhaps, I continued rather to harp on the thing. I said that the book in which the story had appeared was published in 1889. I asked him how long ago it was that he had been on his fishing tour, because it was important to know in order to bring the charge home against Jerome. Well, after a bit, I was amazed, and pained, too, to hear Comrade Bickersdyke urging certain bravoes in the audience to turn me out. If ever there was a case of biting the hand that fed him.... Well, well.... By this time the meeting had begun to take sides to some extent. What I might call my party, the Earnest Investigators, were whistling between their fingers, stamping on the floor, and shouting, "Chestnuts!" while the opposing party, the bravoes, seemed to be trying, as I say, to do jiu-jitsu tricks with me. It was a painful situation. I know the cultivated man of affairs should have passed the thing off with a short, careless laugh; but, owing to the above-mentioned alcohol-expert having got both hands under my collar, short, careless laughs were off. I was compelled, very reluctantly, to conclude the interview by tapping the bright boy on the jaw. He took the hint, and sat down on the floor. I thought no more of the matter, and was making my way thoughtfully to the exit, when a second man of wrath put the above on my forehead. You can't ignore a thing like that. I collected some of his waistcoat and one of his legs, and hove him with some vim into the middle distance. By this time a good many of the Earnest Investigators were beginning to join in; and it was just there that the affair began to have certain points of resemblance to a pantomime rally. Everybody seemed to be shouting a good deal and hitting everybody else. It was no place for a man of delicate culture, so I edged towards the door, and drifted out. There was a cab in the offing. I boarded it. And, having kicked a vigorous politician in the stomach, as he was endeavouring to climb in too, I drove off home.'

Psmith got up, looked at his forehead once more in the glass, sighed, and sat down again.

'All very disturbing,' he said.
6.15.2005 2:21pm
Dan Simon (www):
"Orally quoting witticisms without attribution is hardly plagiarism. Attempting to steal witticisms from Russell Baker, on the other hand, amounts to gross professional incompetence."

-- Me (as far as I know)
6.15.2005 3:31pm
steveh2 (mail):
I'm sorry, but this looks to me like too much time being spent within the confines of the academic world. Outside the academic world, I don't see why anyone in the audience would care AT ALL if a graduation speech was lifted from another source.

If I go to a graduation speech, I expect the speech to congratulate the graduates and their families, and to inspire and motivate. I also want it to be somewhat entertaining. Whether these goals are accomplished depends on two factors: (1)what words are chosen, and (2) how those words are delivered. The effectiveness of the speech is not affected in any way by whether the speaker happened to write the words himself, or got them from somewhere else. As long as he or she chooses good words and delivers them well, the speaker has done a good job. Any "harm to the listener" is purely theoretical, at best.

Would people be as upset if they found out that the speaker paid an unknown ghost writer (who agreed to stay anonymous) to write the entire speech, including the witticisms? If not, how would that scenario be any different from the listener's point of view?
6.15.2005 4:44pm