Whether its a Facebook status or a bumper sticker, everyone loves a great quote. However, some of the most famous quotes in history, from Gandhi to Mark Twain, aren’t what you think they are. Gandhi didn’t tell you to “be the change” and Twain didn’t only believe in “death and taxes.” Sometimes quotes take on new lives after their authors’ deaths, changing from the original phrasing. Or they find out they said something that they never said at all, which happened to George Carlin all the time.
Here are 31 of the most famous misquotes in history, from the slightly altered to the completely changed. In life, it turns out that there’s no phrase so great that you can’t totally butcher it.
1. “Great minds think alike.”
This is actually a shortened version of a longer quote, of which there are two versions. For the full quote, you want to say, “Great minds think alike, small minds rarely differ” or “Great minds think alike, and fools seldom differ.” Same idea, different phrasing.
2. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
According to the New York Times, Gandhi himself never said this. The phrase itself is a simplified idea from his works that boils down his words to a nice bumper sticker. What he actually said was: “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.”
3. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
The popular version is again abridged from a longer statement: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” The last half of the phrase drastically changes it – because the cats get to live now. So world, cat death = preventable. Just give them that b ball of yarn and they’ll be just fine.
4. “Money is the root of all evil.”
This quote comes from 6:10 of 1 Timothy and the full version is “The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.” It’s a pretty close adaptation but adds a definitiveness that the original is lacking. The Bible suggests that money is a cause of evil – but hardly the only one. So the Kardashians can rest a little easier tonight.
5. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
This phrase was adapted into English in the 16th century from a medieval French proverb, and there are a number of different versions that are floating around. In addition to how we know it, there’s another great version I like better: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned in one.”
6. “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash.”
This is another common misattribution. Although the quote has long been sourced as one of Winston Churchill’s many famous phrases, it actually came from his assistant and private secretary, the quippy Sir Anthony Montague-Browne. However, never one to let wit go unrecognized, reports state that Churchill later claimed he would have liked to have actually said it.
7. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire was a brillian novelist and quote machine. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “the best of all possible worlds,” you’ve heard it because Voltaire popularized the Leibniz adage in Candide, the philosopher’s attempt to theorize evil away. However, Voltaire never said the above, his most famous quote. It was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall a century later.
8. “The end justifies the means.”
Although this concept is introduced in Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, the statement itself is never used. The adage itself dates back to Ovid’s Heroides, which was composed in 10 BCE. Machiavelli himself said, “One must consider the final result;” however, the gist of that is markedly different and less declarative.
9. “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes.”
Mark Twain said a lot of things during his lifetime, but this phrase was not one of them. The quote was misattributed to him, because it sounds like something he might say. However, versions of the quote were written both by Christopher Bullock and Edward Ward. In 1716, Bullock claimed, “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes,” and Ward agreed. He wrote in Dancing Devils (1724): ““Death and Taxes, they are certain.”
10. “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
This phrase is commonly attributed to P.T. Barnum, as an indication of his cynicism about his own work, the way he was able to dupe people into paying for crap. But it was never said by Barnum. One of Barnum’s competitors used it to describe the famous showman’s exhibits, and it just kind of stuck.
11. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This is a slight misquotation from one of Lord John Dalberg-Acton’s writings, a famous British historian from the 19th century. Lord Acton actually wrote: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But his next sentence is the more important exclamation point on the idea: “Great men are always bad men.” See? It’s a lot more interesting that way.
12. “Well behaved women rarely make history.”
It’s a well-known fact these days that Marilyn Monroe wasn’t as dumb as she came off – a much better actress than we give her credit for — and this quote is one of many used to indicate her bubbling-under-the-surface intelligence. However, it isn’t hers to claim. It was actually a quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who teaches on Women’s and American History at Harvard.
13. “No rest for the wicked.”
This phrase is often used as a busy person excuse for staying up late, and it might be true, but the quote originated as a misquote from the Bible. Isaiah 15:21 reads: “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” The words “rest” and “peace” are related to each other, but the idea of sleep completely changes its meaning. It’s about finding solace, not a nap.
14. “Blood is thicker than water.”
This is one of many Bible verses that has been misadapted for common use, because the word “convenant” doesn’t roll off the tongue in everyday use. However, the real version completely changes the meaning. The quote comes from: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” This actually means that blood shed in battle bonds soldiers more strongly than simple genetics. Although we commonly use it to suggest the strength of family ties, it doesn’t refer to family at all.
15. “Nice guys finish last.”
Great news, nice guys. You’ve been getting a bad rap. When baseball hall of famer Leo Durocher (aka Leo the Lip), one of the great managers in history, said this, he was referring to another team. Durocher said: “All nice guys. They’ll finish last.” Durocher later clarified that the misquote wasn’t what he meant at all: “I never did say that you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her up.”
16. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
There are a number of different versions of the original quote by Edward A. Murphy, the aerospace engineer who coined the phrase, depending on who you ask. George E. Nichols claimed that Murphy actually said, “If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will,” but his son, Robert, remembered it as: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” But the popular phrasing is actually attributed to Major John Paul Stapp, a U.S. Air Force officer. Stapp claimed of the Air Force, “We do all of our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law.”
17. “Gild the lily.”
“Gild the lily” is the fancy version of putting lipstick on a pig. The phrase is used to suggest giving something a “deceptively attractive or improved appearance.” But Shakespeare’s original version is a tad different. From King John, The longer phrase actually reads: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”
18. “Let them eat cake.”
The full quote goes: “If they have no bread, let them eat cake.” However, neither of them are right – because Marie Antoinette never said it. The quote was used to indicate the decadence of Versailles and the royals and was anti-monarchist propaganda used by opponents to discredit them as rules of “the people.” The “cake” line comes from Jean-Jacques Rosseau’s Confessions: “I recalled the make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’.”
19. “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Much like other pop cultural quotations (e.g. “Beam me up, Scotty” and “Luke, I am your father”) its an adapted version of things that were said at different times, referring more to the work itself than anything actually said in it. Although Holmes never originally said this in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books, it found its way into the film and TV versions of Holmes.
20. “Starve a cold, feed a fever.”
This is both a misquote and potentially bad medical advice. The quote dates back to around 1574, when writer John Withals claimed, “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer.” However, the original version of the quote suggests the opposite: “If you starve a cold, you’ll have to feed a fever.” So if you’re hungry, please eat, whether you are sick or not. Food is good for you and wants to help.
21. “My country, right or wrong.”
This is one of those quotes inbred, backwoods yokels always use to justify war. However, the real version of the quote doesn’t tell us to go blindly into that good combat. Uttered by Carl Schurz in 1872, the real version is: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
22. “The British are coming!”
Although this was attributed to Paul Revere from his famous ride, the man himself never said it. You might think it comes from Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” but that’s not the case either. According to those who were there that evening, Revere actually said, “The regulars are out.”
23. “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
There are quite a few versions of this quote, one of which made its way into a Rise Against song title: “Rumors of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” But the quote itself has been exaggerated. The quote came from a reporter question about the state of Twain’s health, instead of a false obit. Twain said, “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.
24. “The proof is in the pudding.”
The original version of this adage goes all the way back to the 14th century, if not earlier, and the misquote was coined in the 1920s. The new one doesn’t quote make sense (because that sounds messy) but original clarifies: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” According to NPR, this “meant was that you had to try out food to know whether it was good.” Check out their segment on the origin of the phrase here.
25. “I invented the internet.”
Despite long being used to make Al Gore look like an idiot, America’s favorite tree hugger never claimed to invent the internet. Gore took credit for the part he played in funding the government development that led to the flourishing of the internet, becoming the phenomenon it is today. Gore told Late Edition on CNN, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Wired News writer Declan McCullagh coined the use of the word “invented” later, when describing criticism from Dick Armey of Gore’s statement.
26. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
An accomplished 17th and 18th century playwright, this became William Congreve’s most famous quote. However, the actual line from his 1697 play, The Mourning Bride, goes: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The man certainly had a flair for the dramatic.
27. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”
Poor Congreve could never get quoted correctly. From the same play, people often use the above quotation incorrectly and misattribute it to Shakespeare. It’s actually the first line from The Mourning Bride, and the real version goes: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast/To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
28. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Although this is commonly attributed to Edmund Burke, the father of conservativism, the famous British statesman didn’t say it. John F. Kennedy popularized the misquote in a famous speech, but it’s been floating around in different versions since the 19th century. Burke’s original said, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” The phrase was also attributed to Reverend Charles F. Aked, who used the quote to argue for prohibition in 1916.
29. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
This one depends on who you ask. General Phillip Sheridan is claimed to have actually said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” which isn’t much better. However, General Sheridan himself denied that those words ever came out of his mouth. For the record, if I said something like that, I’d probably deny it, too.
30. “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
There’s a great scene in Reality Bites where Ethan Hawke uses this quote for his answering machine, as an ironic statement on the existential darkness of his soul. However, the actual line from Shakespeare’s Richard III goes: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” It doesn’t refer to darkness at all but is meant to indicate that something good has happened.
31. “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.”
This whole story is really a pile of dung, a fine example of American mythmaking, and George Washington himself never said it. The anecdote was concocted by Washington biographer Parson Weems, who interviewed folks who knew the president after his death. In 1904, an investigation into Weems’ work uncovered that the biographer commonly made up anecdotes for his biographies, and this was likely one of them. There was no actual source for the story. Meaning Weems was full of shit.