I just replied to a comment on StackOverflow, writing: "I know of nothing but miracles (apologies to Walt Whitman)"

But then I got to wondering: why do we apologize to someone for quoting them? Shouldn't it be "kudos to Walt Whitman" or "hats off to Walt Whitman" or "here's to you, Walt Whitman" or so?

Especially when the person is dead (such as WW), it seems odd to apologize for quoting. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

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    We don't say it when quoting, we say it when paraphrasing. There's a difference. – Robusto Nov 11 '15 at 19:35
  • Okay, that makes sense (apologies to David Byrne). – B. Clay Shannon Nov 11 '15 at 19:40
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    I'm not sure that's quite right, @Robusto; when we paraphrase we express the same content in an alternate form of words. "Apologies to" comes in rather when we borrow the exact form of words but make a substitution so as to apply the saying to something new. Thus where Johnson said "The road to hell, sir, is paved with good intentions," we might say "with apologies to Johnson, the road to fiscal hell is paved with 'tax relief.'" – Brian Donovan Nov 11 '15 at 19:45
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    That is paraphrasing, @Brian. Usually it means the same recognizable expression with one or two words changed. "3 The adaptation or alteration of a text or quotation to serve a different purpose from that of the original." So you're right that yours is one definition, but wrong in saying mine isn't. It is. – Robusto Nov 11 '15 at 20:02
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    Fundamentally, you apologize whenever you feel that the person you're referencing might wince at what you're saying if that person was there to hear you. – Jim Nov 11 '15 at 20:25

I think that there are two main kinds of "apologies to" acknowledgments connected to instances of paraphrasing or word or phrase borrowing. One is the sincere "I have appropriated this word or expression from person X, who used it in a particular way, and I may not be doing justice to that person's original intention" kind—an acknowledgment that really has an apologetic element to it. For example, from J.J. Godfrey, A Philosophy of Human Hope (1987):

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,/And hope without an object cannot live. —Coleridge, Work Without Hope

Our reflection on hope that has an aim or target begins with the features of such targets. With apologies to Coleridge, however, hope does not, strictly speaking, have an "object." What is hoped for is not a thing or an item, but rather a state of affairs or an event.

The other is the utterly insincere "I just invented a clever burlesque of someone else's famous phrase, but I'm not sure you'll recognize it unless I identify the source that I corrupted" kind. These are, I'm sorry to say, quite common. For example, from Robert Horn, How Will They Know If I'm Dead? Transcending Disability and Terminal Illness (1996):

He once wandered through the house for 10 minutes with a used bedpan, flexing all the way, apparently wondering, with apologies to MacBeth, "Is this a bedpan I see before me? If so, what the hell do I do with it?" Get a life, dude!

(That's Macbeth, by the way, dude.)

Many instances of "apologies to" fall somewhere between these two pure types of apology, but I think that the majority tend toward the insincere and self-aggrandizing end of the spectrum.

I utilize the phrase to credit the source and to evince humility in "comparing" my work to that of the source.

  • It's only reasonable to use the phrase when somehow paraphrasing, constructing a parallel version, or otherwise somehow subverting the original author's intent. – Hot Licks Nov 11 '15 at 20:03

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