Whose words are these?

The strange evolution of a Martin Luther King quotation can tell us a lot about authorship.

Authorship is a funny thing. Take this blog post, for example. There, above the headline, is a large, pink egg-shaped object that bears an uncanny resemblance to the putty-faced ovoid I occasionally wash when I can't see through the grime. It's my face, trapped in that awkward sneery half-smile, and these words are mine.

Well, are they? You could say that I've lifted "these words are mine" from the beautiful lyrics of Natasha Bedingfield's spectacularly written song about songwriting, "These Words Are Mine". And there they are, the same Roman characters in the same order, the same English words implying a very similar sentiment to that pop masterwork. I would argue, though, that since I haven't surrounded them with the lustrous beauty that Bedingfield did, I haven't so much borrowed them from her fair quill, but simply reproduced a familiar phrase.

I think that's fair enough, but it's hard to know. When writing something, you're aware that you might stumble across something someone else once did before, whether you're doing so accidentally or knavishly. It's the latter knavishness that is frowned upon, of course, for tweet jackdaws who end up cracking gags that others have made before, using their own avatar and getting all the plaudits.

But then, what if you come up with the same thing independently, simultaneously? There is only a finite number of puns, for example: someone's bound to have thought about the same one as you, and done it before – and probably done it better. Does that mean you're a thief if you think you've come up with one yourself, only to discover that it came out of the Ark?

I ask all this because, this week, words from Martin Luther King Jr echoed around Twitter and Facebook. "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, even an enemy," he said. Or rather, he didn't. The quotation came instead from a Pennsylvanian English teacher in Japan, Jessica Dovey, who had followed her own sentiment with the true King quote:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Dovey's quote got added in to MLK's words, and then, for reasons of space in Twitter's 140-character limit, her quote became King's. Except he never said it.

Does it matter, now that we know a figure we admire didn't say these words – that they came from a pleb, someone who is just like us? Does it diminish their power? Does it erode credibility from those who repeated and retweeted the sentiment in those hours after the slaying of Osama Bin Laden, using the authoritative voice of a peace campaigner to reflect their views that the killing was less than morally perfect?

I think the answer is no. If anything, I feel it's a wonderful thing to discover a new, extraordinary quotation from someone completely ordinary. Would we have known about Dovey's words if they had not been wrongly attributed to someone more famous? Probably not. But I'm glad we did hear them.

It is too easy to attribute wise-sounding words to the wise people we've learned to admire. There are plenty of mistakes, bad quotes and less-than-pleasant things that got said by many famous figures whose other words are copied and pasted all over the place; but we tend to ignore those other sayings in favour of the aphorisms that suit our sentiments the most. It's a deal more complicated than that, but when you're trying to sum up your feelings in 140 characters or fewer, a lot of the richness to these passages does die away.

So, yes, I did write this; but I had help, from Natasha Bedingfield, from Martin Luther King, from Jessica Dovey. Would you believe me if I said I wrote this all on my own? Probably not. Does it matter if I did most of it by myself? I hope so. These words are mine. Trying to find the magic, trying to write a classic . . . sometimes we all borrow a little from somewhere else.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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I somehow feel very different this year, waving my teenager off to Pride

I thought times had changed, and was glad – then Orlando hit me like a smack in the face.

When I guest-edited Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of years ago, one of my chosen topics was young people and the internet, and specifically the way in which it can be such a positive force for gay teens who are coming to understand themselves and to find friends and allies. This item was entirely inspired by my own teenager, who came out at the age of 15, and had already found an online community of help, support and friendship.

Back when I was a teenager, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Well, of course I did, but didn’t know it. My friend had a boyfriend with whom things never quite worked out, and when he came out years later it all made sense. We didn’t talk about it or wonder about it at the time. We sang “Glad to Be Gay” and thought we were cool and we knew nothing.

My kids, on the other hand, know everything, and they’ve taught me so much, mostly in terms of theory and terminology. I’d still thought I was cool but it turned out that in fact I was 53 and out of date, and they dragged me cheerfully into the second decade of the 21st century, blinking, dusting myself down.

The whole experience was a happy one, on both sides. A teenager who came out into a welcoming family. A brief, teary hug, because I hadn’t instinctively known (“God, Mum, your gaydar is crap”), and laughter at the clues I’d missed (“All that watching Eurovision together, Mum – did you still not guess?”). It wasn’t that I didn’t think any of my kids might be gay: just that I was still being a mum and not realising they’d stopped being kids.

Back in 2007 I wrote a song called “A-Z”, about gay teens being bullied at school, a kind of retelling of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, which I’d always adored. But then my own teen wasn’t bullied at school, and was happily out there, and everyone was cool, and I thought, “This is fantastic. What a time to be alive.” A crowd of them – gay, straight, bi – went off to Pride, wrapped in flags and with rainbows painted on their faces, and we took photos and celebrated, and again I thought, “What a time to be alive. Hurrah for Now.”

But then Orlando. Oh God, Orlando, which hit me smack in the face, left me shattered and weeping, feeling stupid for not remembering that there were still people out there who might want to harm my beautiful, clever, funny, science-loving, Ru Paul-loving child. Had we been living in a dream? Were we wrong to do so? We’d just been enjoying the good news, that’s all. The increasing freedom and equal rights. The taking of simple things for granted, like being able to marry and have kids. Just ordinariness – nothing anyone should have to feel grateful for.

How we can both know and not know things. How our longing for change lulls us into believing change has come. Of course I knew there was still a way to go. But there’s knowing and not knowing. There’s knowing something cerebrally, and knowing it viscerally. Love makes you strong and it makes you vulnerable. The people you love are the gap in your armour where the blade gets in, and Orlando was quite some blade.

“Four dead in Ohio,” sang Neil Young, in a plaintive lament for the students killed at Kent State University back in 1970. And the tune keeps coming into my head, with different words. Fifty dead in Orlando. Those text messages sent from the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub, what was it one of them said? “Mommy . . . Trapp in bathroom . . . I’m gonna die.” Mommy. That’s where the blade got in. And I wave my child – 18 now, an adult, but always my child – off to Pride for the third time, but in a different mood this year. Alert. Steely.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a book about same-sex marriage, non-binary gender identity, family, motherhood and, above all, love, and I come across this line: “Sometimes one has to know something many times over. Sometimes one forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets again.” I promise not to forget again.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies