15 Famous Quotes That Are Flat Wrong
They are so famous, a school child can recite them from memory. They’re repeated so often, they’ve become part of our cultural currency.
And they are flat wrong, too.
Dozens of legendary quotes from our past were actually misunderstood, taken out of context or, (the worst offense of the bunch) never uttered at all.
What historical heresy is this, you ask? Consider the evidence and decide for yourself.
“The British are coming!” -Paul Revere
What Revere actually cried out that fateful April night in 1775 was, “The Regulars are coming!”
Historian aren’t sure how “Regulars” turned into “British” in our collective memory. It didn’t come from Longfellow’s famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride, (“Listen my children and you shall hear …”) It seems to have happened on its own. But it’s still wrong.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Ghandi
High school graduation season is right around the corner. If you’re dragged to a commencement ceremony, chances are good you’ll hear a pimply faced teenager recite that old chestnut. Admittedly, it’s inspiring. It’s also inaccurate.
Gandhi actually said, “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.” Profound words … though they’re hard to squeeze onto a bumper sticker.
“Nice Guys Finish Last.” -Leo Durocher
“Leo the Lip” wasn’t making a sweeping generalization about Nice Guys (which I have been accused of being myself from time to time, incidentally). He was commenting on a specific group of guys who happened to be nice. And doomed to fail, too.
And history somehow got it wrong.
“Now he belongs to the ages.” -Edwin Stanton
It was a poignant moment. After enduring an all-night death watch, the group crammed into a small Washington, DC boarding room witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s last breath. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sighed, then muttered, “Now he belongs to the angels.”
Unfortunately for history, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who was also in the room, was partially deaf. He heard Stanton’s “angels” as “ages,” and recorded it that way in his diary when he returned home. Welles’ misheard version is now an oft-quoted tribute marking Lincoln’s passing.
“We are not amused!” -Queen Victoria
One day a servant told a racy story in the presence of some ladies, including Her Britannic Majesty. And Victoria did indeed reply, “We are not amused!”
But she wasn’t using the royal “we” (called a ‘majestic plural’ by linguists) to refer strictly to herself; she used the regular plural “we”, meaning she and the other women in the room didn’t appreciate the bawdy tale.
The quote was quickly circulated as supposed proof of Victoria’s prudish nature. But as I have written here so often before, the Victorians were a mass of contradictions (and you can’t get more Victorian than Victoria herself). Far from being a prude, Victoria had a razor sharp wit in private. Given that she had nine children with Prince Albert, something must have happened under the sheets, too. A whole lot of something. But that’s another story for another time.
Anyway, Victoria explained the backstory behind her famous misquote to a granddaughter shortly before she died in 1901.
“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” -General Philip Sheridan
Sheridan was a brutal practitioner of Total War. As a Yankee general in the Civil War, he left Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley a smoldering ruin. Later, he turned his savage attention to Native Americans out west, with similar results.
There’s a strong case that Sheridan actually said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Which isn’t a whole lot better than his famous quote.
Either way, Sheridan denied both versions when he was an old man. (If I were clearing the decks in preparation for meeting my Maker, I’d try to put as much distance between myself and those harsh words as I possibly could, too.)
“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” -Mark Twain
A reporter really did ask him about his health one day, and Twain really did answer, “The report of my death is an exaggeration.” That’s all. There’s something else, too; those other versions say Twain was responding after his obituary was erroneously printed in a prominent newspaper. There’s no evidence of that ever happening.
And speaking of Twain …
“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” -Mark Twain
Nothing like that ever came from Twain’s mouth or pen. Christopher Bullock claimed in 1716, “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” Edward Ward echoed that in 1724: “Death and Taxes, they are certain.” The line sounded like something Twain would say, and to many folks in his time, that was good enough.
“There’s a sucker born every minute.” -P.T. Barnum
Barnum was a master showman, and he wasn’t above pulling a fast one on his paying customers. (My favorite Barnum stunt was his 1835 display of an elderly African-American woman named Joice Heth, whom he claimed was George Washington’s 161 year-old childhood nurse. She told stories about “little George” and sang a hymn to spectators, while Barnum hauled in $1,700 a week in ticket sales, the equivalent of $15,000 today. When she died the next year at the real age of about 75, Barnum still made money; 1,500 folks paid 50 cents each to witness her autopsy.)
But here’s the amazing thing about Barnum. Unlike most hoaxers and hucksters, there was no malicious intent in his heart. People knew he was pulling a fast one, and they liked being in on the joke. They understood he was winking at them when he spread his malarkey, and they loved him for it.
So where did “a sucker born every minute” come from? It originated with a rival showman, who was jealous of Barnum’s financial success. While the original line described Barnum’s customers, it morphed into an (erroneous) expression of Barnum’s contemptuous opinion of them.
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” – Sherlock Holmes
The evidence reveals it popped up in Hollywood’s old Basil Rathbone “Sherlock” movies.
“Starve a cold, feed a fever.” -Anonymous medical advice
Not only is it medically inaccurate, it’s flat wrong. The best evidence is the quote dates to circa 1574, when writer John Withals claimed, “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer (sic).” However, an even older saying contradicts that with, “If you starve a cold, you’ll have to feed a fever.”
I’m no doctor, and I don’t play one on TV. So I can’t provide any useful suggestions for what to do when you’re ailing. Try WebMD. You may not feel better afterward, but it’s cheaper than seeing your doctor, and the wait time is shorter, too.
“Let them eat cake!” -Marie Antionette
Marie was the spoiled brat of Versailles, and we all know her days on the throne ended in a date with Monsieur Guillotine. But the French Queen gets a bum rap for this quote, because she didn’t say it. (Given her dimwitted nature, she likely didn’t even think it.)
So what gives?
Jean-Jacques Rosseau wrote in Confessions: “I recalled a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’.” And it spread from there.
Wow – this quote is totally off base all the way around.
“The end justifies the means.” -Nicholo Machiavelli
Here’s what Machiavelli did pen: “One must consider the final result.” Big difference.
“I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” -George Washington
Reverend Mason Weems, known today simply as Parson Weems, enjoyed writing biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. He also liked making a good thing better by creating episodes and quotes out of thin air to reinforce character strengths. While that’s a fine quality in a novelist, it’s inexcusable in a biographer … and doubly so for a Man of the Cloth. (Remember the Ninth Commandment? “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” That means no fibbing in the Facts Department.)
When Weems’ story came out in the early 1800s, George probably looked down from Heaven and asked, “What lie? What cherry tree?” Because neither ever happened.
The story started to crack in 1889, when Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography wrote that Weems “would have accounted it excusable to tell any good story to the credit of his heroes.” A pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson biography of Washington in 1896 called the tale “a complete fabrication.” The final nail was pounded into the story’s coffin in 1911 when “Parson Weems: A Biographical and Critical Study” was published. Researchers found no historical basis at all.
“Half the quotes you read are pure bunk!” -J. Mark Powell
I never said that! Or anything like it. (See, even your humble blogger isn’t immune to quotation inaccuracy.)
The bottom line: whenever the veracity of famous line is called into question, always remember another famous quote. It was an old Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan loved hounding Mikhail Gorbachev (the guy who eventually hung the Closed sign in the Soviet Union’s window) with: “Trust, but verify.”
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