We all love quoting famous people. Famous quotes are often pithy, sometimes hilarious and at times profound. There are also the people we admire use malapropisms that make them even more endearing. It’s a shame, however, that a lot of times what we think are proper quotes from someone are, in fact, misquoted sayings.
Quotes from famous people are fascinating in a few different ways. One reason is that who said the quote in question doesn’t matter as much as its plausibility and our ability as (mis)quoters to make it ours and use it when the occasion arises.
It’s totally normal to misquote people. Nobody is immune to it, especially when the internet is constantly spreading bad information. Don’t worry if you’ve used a quote thinking someone said it when they didn’t. You’re in good company!
Some Historical Misquoted Sayings
In 2017, the U.S. Republican Party celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by tweeting a phrase often attributed to the beloved president: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” While it was a well-meaning birthday wish, Lincoln never actually said that. Then-President of the United States Donald Trump quickly retweeted the misquote.
But this wasn’t the first time that Honest Abe was publicly misquoted. Over two decades earlier, President Ronald Reagan made a similar mistake during a Republican National Convention. Reagan said that the Democratic Party didn’t represent the so-called “Ten Cannots” that Lincoln espoused. So he quoted Lincoln…well, more accurately, he misquoted Lincoln.
Americans don’t have the market cornered on making these mistakes. In a 2008 speech to the Italian Senate, former Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella announced that he was withdrawing his support for the Prodi Administration. To make his announcement, he solemnly quoted a poem that many (including him) believe was written by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. However, it was actually written by poet Martha Medeiros: “Die slowly.”
Sometimes these verbal missteps become amusing gaffes. For example, in 2020, Venetian President Luca Zaia read a poem that seemed particularly fitting for the first COVID-19 lockdown. He said that the poem was written 2000 years ago by Greek poet Heracleion of Gela, but that wasn’t the case: it was a prank pulled by a computer scientist from Palermo.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most famous ad common misquotes. Some might surprise you.
12 Misquoted Sayings (And Who Actually Said What)
“Elementary, my dear Watson!”
Commonly Attributed To: Sherlock Holmes (as written by Arthur Conan Doyle)
Actual Origin: Many other people
For many who never read Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous book series, this phrase is most commonly associated with Sherlock Holmes when he explains the simple (for him) solution to the case to his assistant Watson. But Doyle never wrote that phrase in any of his novels. The fictional detective did say “elementary” and “my dear Watson” separately from time to time, but their combination was a later invention.
“The ends justify the means.”
Commonly Attributed To: Niccolò Machiavelli
Actual Origin: People later summarizing Machiavelli’s work
In his famous book The Prince, Machiavelli explains a concept that could technically be summarized as, “the ends justify the means.” But Machiavelli never said or wrote that exactly, so it’s not quite fair to quote him on it (exact wording matters, after all).
“The most important thing is not winning but taking part.”
Commonly Attributed To: Pierre de Coubertin
Actual Origin: Ethelbert Talbot
The founder of the modern-day Olympic games Pierre de Coubertin never said this iconic phrase. He said, “What’s important in these Olympics isn’t winning but having taken part,” in his opening speech of the 1908 while correctly citing the original inspiration of the quote: Anglican bishop Ethelbert Talbot.
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Commonly Attributed To: Albert Einstein
Actual Origin: Unknown
Albert Einstein is a veritably infinite source of misquotes: the poor scientist has had words put in his mouth time and time again. This quote is about the fourth world war is one of the most famous (another popular one is, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”) Although it’s unclear who really said it in the first place — and Albert Einstein did indeed voice his concerns about atomic warfare during his lifetime — he likely didn’t say this exact quote at any point.
“Who doesn’t allow themselves, at least once in life, to flee from sensible advice [dies slowly.]”
Commonly Attributed To: Pablo Neruda
Actual Origin: Martha Medeiros
As we mentioned before, this is one of the most commonly misquoted sayings. It’s so common that, since Mastella’s infamous gaffe, people have been using the correct source for the quote more and more. Martha Medeiros really deserves the credit for this line.
“Let them eat cake!”
Commonly Attributed To: Marie Antoinette
Actual Origin: Unknown
This iconic quote which is a mistranslation of the original quote “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” or “Let them eat brioche,” is often emblematic of the insensitivity of the French queen and the former ruling class towards the needs of the poor. And yet, it was never actually said by Marie Antoinette. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau quoted this famous phrase in one of his pieces and attributed it to an unidentified princess at the time. In fact, Marie Antoinette hadn’t even been born yet when Rousseau quoted this unnamed princess.
“And yet it moves!”
Commonly Attributed To: Galileo Galilei
Actual Origin: Unknown
Galileo’s legacy spans across physics, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. Still, there isn’t any clear evidence that he ever said this exact phrase. The oldest version of this quote was first found in a painting that was completed between 1643 and 1645, after Galileo’s death, meaning it could’ve just been the painter’s invention.
“It’s a sin to think badly of others, but you often guess correctly.”
Commonly Attributed To: Giulio Andreotti
Actual Origin: Pope Pius XI ✅
Former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti said that, right? Wrong. It was said by none other than the Pope. Pope Pius XI to be more specific. Andreotti was close, but no cigar!
“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
Commonly Attributed To: Joseph Stalin
Actual Origin: A New York Times article
Joseph Stalin never said this infamous phrase. Or, better yet, there’s no evidence in any of his biographies or firsthand accounts that would give anyone reason to believe that he said this. In 1958, a New York Times article attributed this quote to him. As a result, it will probably remain part of his legacy forever.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
Commonly Attributed To: Mark Twain
Actual Origin: Maurice Switzer
This phrase has been attributed to many different people over the years, including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Confucius. Twain in particular is famous for misquoted sayings, with credit for countless phrases he never actually said (as well as for plenty of clever saying he did indeed invent). It was author Maurice Switzer who wrote this in 1907, however.
“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Commonly Attributed To: Marilyn Monroe
Actual Origin: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Marilyn Monroe is one of the most commonly misquoted actors. This is one of the most striking examples, but this quote isn’t from her (or even Eleanor Roosevelt, who also sometimes gets the credit). It comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
“God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself.”
Commonly Attributed To: Woody Allen
Actual Origin: Eugène Ionesco
This misquote, filled with existential anxiety, seems so classic Woody Allen, doesn’t it? This phrase is often attributed to the New York-based director, but it actually comes from Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.