I’m getting really tired of seeing this quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln:
If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the ax.
Young Abe Lincoln was hired out to other farms by his father. He became handy with an ax, splitting logs into rails for fences. I’m pretty sure that he never spent more than a few minutes sharpening his ax, because that’s all it takes for me to sharpen any of my axes. If the bit has a chip in it, you use a mill bastard file (when talking about files, bastard means medium-rough) to smooth the edge; otherwise, a simple whetstone is sufficient. I use a round stone called a puck that I can grip with one hand while I hold the ax head in the other hand. It took me less than five minutes to return an old, battered Estwing hatchet to service after my wife found it at a yard sale, and we still use it when camping at the beach.
So why am I ranting about axes? I’m not—I’m ranting about attribution.
A good idea stands on its own. If there is a well-known expert who has weighed in with a pithy quote that applies to the subject, then inserting it into an expository article is perfectly reasonable; I do it all the time. But first, I research the quote to confirm that it is accurate and was actually said by the person I’m going to attribute it to. To do less not only risks my credibility, it shows disrespect to the reader and calls the otherwise good idea into question.
It is indisputable that preparation is key to efficiency. No one will argue otherwise. Yet, someone—several someones, in fact—introduced their article on that indisputable maxim with that faux quote which Lincoln never said. I can say definitively that he never said it, because The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln is available on line, and nothing like that line comes up in various searches. Moreover, I suspect that Lincoln would find the assertion ludicrous if he heard it.
So when another article popped up in my Feedly list today and I saw that silly quote about sharpening Lincoln’s ax, I closed my browser and I composed this rant. Maybe I should thank him.