Everything Is Plagiarized

May as well use these for everything you write . . .Are there really any original ideas out there, or are we all just regurgitating recycled material absorbed through constant contact with the collective? Educated with the words of others since childhood, and connected now to millions of online voices—themselves immersed in the global bitstream—is anything we impart truly our own? Admittedly, it's an unwitting plagiarism, and altogether ordinary. We begin to imitate language before its meaning is even clear; babbling babyhood is a primer for our gibbering adult lives.

Even with an unabridged dictionary at hand, how many combinations are possible? How many permutations? A lot, but not infinity, and it's nice if the resulting sentences are at least dimly lucid. Sooner or later you slam into the unavoidable conclusion: there are only so many useful words to work with, and only so many ways to hook them up. Some of those ways seem more creative, more original than others. But are they, really? I mean, hasn't it all been done before?

I think so, and it eats at me. The college student whose career as an author was recently aborted amid charges of plagiarism maintained she had "internalized" another's writing, and had unconsciously regurgitated it in her own book. I didn't follow the story much beyond that point and I don't know the shamed young author, but such an event doesn't strike me as utterly impossible. Unlikely, maybe, but when I think about the sheer volume of material available on the Internet alone—and assuming an inordinate amount of reading time—the idea of recycled words and phrases isn't farfetched. And for someone who loves to read, especially if it's an inclination fostered during childhood, the accumulated language stored in that person's mind would naturally return to the page—sufficiently altered from the original, we hope, to avoid any doubt about its relative originality.

Fortunately, we have people who are good at spotting plagiarism, usually by virtue of their own scholarly consumption; to those who have spent the better part of their lives absorbing literature, newly stolen phrases glare. And despite the opportunities for abuse, the vast resources available on the Internet also make it easier to locate and compare sources of plagiarized material. While I certainly believe it’s possible for two people—or three, or four—to have the same idea at the same time, it's a bit odd when that idea is manifested in exactly the same words by more than one person.

Personally, I get a kick out of turning a blank page into a collection of words. It's not so different from the canvas-to-painting metamorphosis, or making something from a hunk of wet clay on the potter's wheel. It's therapeutic, and it's fun. Sometimes it's even cathartic. But it still eats at me because I know that somewhere, probably in a cave, there's an old guy with a beard and a rusty typewriter who's already come up with every word—and in exactly the same sequence—that I'm using right now. Sure, he isn't publishing those words on the Web so I'll get there first, and I'll win. But it's a hollow victory.


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