16 Misquoted Quotations

By Mark Nichol

Many quotations attributed to famous people are at best paraphrases — though often superior to the original. Others might be subtly altered in the retelling, sometimes with little impact on their effect, at other times irresponsibly changing the meaning. Here is a selection of well-known sayings or writings that aren’t quite accurate (followed by a couple that are but are mistakenly identified as erroneous):

1. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

This quotation attributed to Gandhi is a later invention by an unknown person, likely inspired by the following passage: “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. . . . We need not wait to see what others do.”

2. “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.”

Gandhi was also credited with this pithy progression, but something like it was actually uttered in a speech at a union meeting in the United States in 1914: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”

3. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

This is an amended version of a line by playwright William Congreve, who flourished around the turn of the eighteenth century. The actual comment is “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

4. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

As with many of these lines, the person to whom it is attributed — in this case, Voltaire, perhaps would have wished he had been so eloquent. This ringing pronouncement, however, derives not from the French philosopher’s own pen, but from an early-twentieth-century biography of him.

5. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

This is a slightly recast alteration of Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet’s query about how his mother likes the play he has, unbeknownst to her, scripted to prompt a guilty reaction from her and King Claudius, who Hamlet believes conspired to murder his father. She is saying that the character of the queen is trying too hard to appear innocent. The original, no better or worse — merely measured differently — is “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

6. “Money is the root of all evil.”

This alteration of a biblical verse, by omitting a vital element of the original, changes the meaning significantly. The verse actually reads, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”

7. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This misquotation lacks the equivocation of British historian Lord Action’s actual statement, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — and omits the blunt next sentence: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

8. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”

The actual quote, from the same play from which the line in the third entry above is taken, is “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” The next line, elaborating on the theme, is “To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”

9. “Nice guys finish last.”

Legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher wasn’t making a blanket statement when he uttered these four words. They are a contracted repetition of his assessment of a baseball team’s prospects for the season. The entire quotation is “All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys — finish last.”

10. “No rest for the wicked.”

This line, uttered jocularly by a busy person, perhaps as an excuse for departing, is probably inspired by the biblical verse “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.”

11. “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

These first few words of Shakespeare’s Richard III are often expressed to mean “The present time is the winter of our discontent.” What the titular character means, however, is made clear by including the second part of the statement, which demonstrates that the phrase is merely a preface to the counterpoint of a reference to better times: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

12. “Pride comes before a fall.”

This is a contracted version of the biblical verse “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

13. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Twain’s actual comment is more straightforward: “The report of my death is an exaggeration.” In addition, the statement is in reference not to a prematurely printed obituary but to a reporter’s inquiry about his health.

14. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

This quotation is a vast improvement over this vaguely similar statement by Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

15. “Theirs but to do or die.”

The legendary phrase from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” has a subtly but significantly different penultimate word. The entire line reads, “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.”

16. “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

The line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has been tidied up a bit. The original is “Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink.”

Two other well-known statements considered to be misquotes are actually later versions of lesser-known comments. Winston Churchill’s phrase “Blood, sweat, and tears,” widely believed to be an erroneous version of “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” is actually a more concise and euphonious update of the more extended form.

By the same token, “I laughed all the way to the bank” is an alleged misquotation (and misunderstanding of Liberace’s quip “I cried all the way to the bank,” but he actually did use laughed in response to a poor review of a financially successful concert of his. When he later won a lawsuit — with compensation — stemming from a newspaper’s veiled contention that he was gay (the nerve!), he altered the earlier utterance with a change of verb to reply to a query about whether the accusation made him distraught.

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20 Responses to “16 Misquoted Quotations”

  • Asine Solomon

    There is always that joy that comes with the ability to express ones self, both thought, feelings etc in the most professional and accurate manner. That is what I am striving to attain.

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    I remembered a few of these from a class long ago, but they are still good to know for those times when you are looking for correct attribution and how amazing the human brain is at morphing and changing things through no fault of anyone. Always good to see the original quotes mixed in there as well.

  • simon salt

    This is a really useful reminder to fact check even the things we believe we know to be right.
    My Mother used to add to the “No rest for the wicked” quote “and precious little for the righteous” she in turn had been told that by her grandmother – I have no idea of the origins but it always seemed to complete it well.

  • Deborah H

    I never trust myself (or anyone else) to remember quotations correctly, but always look them up.

  • Kerstin

    Another common quote, “God helps those who help themselves” is thought to be a bible verse but it is actually not in the bible at all. It is exactly the opposite of the message of scripture.

    Prov 28:26 (NIV) He who trusts in himself is a fool…

  • Shirley in Berkeley

    Does 2., the Gandhi quotation., mean that he was in the United State in 1914 and spoke at a union meeting? Didn’t know that.

  • Treathyl FOX

    I’m surprised the quote about money wasn’t at the top of the list.

    I’ve heard that one misquoted practically my entire life.

    People screw up the Beatitudes a lot too!

    The meek are who?
    The peacemakers go where?
    Who gets what?

    🙂

  • JP

    I appreciated a lot your article as I often try to find the original source and exact writing of the quotations I want to use as well except that they are in French .. which can be sometimes even more difficult because of the translation debates .. And I agree with the fact that the remixed one can be superior which can bring more inspiration than the original. Anyway, thanks for the recap !

  • maribel steel

    Another miss quotation is Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” – some other Royal said it years before she was born, which Antoinia Fraser in her biography of this mis-understood Queen has reported. The quote was a reference to bread, not cake. Thanks Mark for this post. Maribel

  • beth

    7. Power corrupts….. is actually a quote (or misquote) from Renaissance writer Machievelli “The Prince”.

  • Staggo Lee

    “No man is an island unto himself.” Wrong, but ubiquitous. The correct quote is, to me, more nuanced. The original is a lead-in to a short, and brilliant poem by John Donne. It reads, “No man is an island entire of itself”. From there, the poem ever expands our inclusion in the great whole. The misquote is flat, and it invites no sweeping thought.

  • Chris

    On #12, didn’t you mean “pride _goes_ before a fall”?

  • Nick

    “Luke, I am your father.” is really: “No. I am you father.” Annoys me so much.

  • Mark Nichol

    Nick:

    Thanks for adding a misquote from another fine specimen of classic literature. As is sometimes the case, this misquote actually is more effective than the original.

  • Brian

    There’s also Churchill’s misquoted line: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Apparently he borrowed it himself.

    I prefer the misquote, “blood, sweat, and tears.”

  • Brian

    Staggo, I thought that line was from an essay by Donne, not a poem. I didn’t Google it though. Am I wrong?

  • Frank

    Well,
    #7 is properly attributed to John Dalberg-ACTON. And the following sentence is indeed blunt.

  • Sally

    Movies and TV are great sources of misquotaion.

    “Play it again, Sam.”

    “Come up and see me sometime.”

    “Beam me up, Scotty.”

    etc, etc (google ’em, folks!)

  • Carolyn Critz

    “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett Butler’s famous parting words to Scarlett O’Hara Butler in Gone With The Wind were actually “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” More powerful without “frankly” I think…

  • Betty Reade

    In the screen credits of the movie ‘Rage’ which lists its source James Hilton’s book and a quotation ‘Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned.’ Underneath Milton is given credit for the quote.

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