Excuse me while I borrow a tweet or three from Megan McArdle:
As @terryteachout pointed out to me, Google fragments of your own writing and by seven words, you get only one hit.
True “accidental” plagiarism, in other words, does not exist. An example she provides is slightly startling:
It’s actually kind of amazing: even a phrase as banal as “I attracted a lot of angry comments last October” is apparently unique.
I had to test this for myself, of course. My best-known seven-word phrase, which is actually only six words long if you count that hyphenated thing as one, is my description of the Grim Reaper as “that scythe-wielding son of a bitch,” which shows up four times in Google, all by me.
But that’s fairly distinctive. I pulled up an eight-word phrase from Vent #750 “No two people have exactly the same schedule” which produced three sources, of which I was the third.
“You’re never too old to yearn” (from Vent #341) brought me first and third place, the second being occupied by a Florida newspaper. And the third was from a comment I made to that now-infamous bit of fanfiction I wrote, which undeservedly still gets 20-30 readers a day. Amused by this, I keyed in the five-word phrase that ushers in the ending. It landed second.
Still, the best comment on plagiarism all this, of course, was prompted by Time columnist Fareed Zakaria’s suspension came from James Lileks: “You realize that Tom Lehrer totally copied ‘Lobachevsky’ from someone else.” Then again, Lileks was meta before meta was meta.