History is full of quotable leaders and writers — and some of those quotes look great on a bumper sticker. But before you outfit your Kia with another line from Gandhi or Shakespeare, be sure that you’ve got it right (because you wouldn’t be the first to say it wrong).
You’ve likely seen this inspirational quote in a classroom or office somewhere, usually credited to Mahatma Gandhi. While it certainly reflects Gandhi’s worldview, there’s no evidence that he ever said those words in that order. The closest equivalent would be, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” Still noble, if a little less quotable.
When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and uttered the immortal words, “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, hearts swelled around the nation. Grammarians, however, cocked an eyebrow at the seemingly repetitive statement (man and mankind are synonymous in this context). That’s because Armstrong’s actual quote was, “It’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Listen carefully; it’s quick, but you can hear that little “a” in there after all.
Some misquotes are so epic that they’re even carved in stone. In 2013, the quote “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” (paraphrased from Martin Luther King, Jr’s The Drum Major Instinct speech) was removed from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. The actual quote reads, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, I was a drum major for righteousness, and all the other shallow things will not matter.”
Methinks is a fun word to say, and so is doth. That’s (one reason) why people love quoting Hamlet to tease a person who is denying something too strongly, thus revealing how they really feel. Unfortunately, the line is actually, “The lady protests too much, methinks.” Not as fun to say, but you still get a methinks in there.
Another Shakespearean quote run amok is from Richard III, and while you might be saying it right, the context is all wrong. Claiming that “Now is the winter of our discontent” because you had a bad day ignores the very important next line: “Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” In addition to the excellent sun/son pun, the line celebrates the end of Richard’s hardships now that his brother, Edward IV, is king. It means “better times are coming,” not “everything is terrible and I want to go back to bed.”
Many devious decisions have been rationalized by a quote that supposedly came from The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli: “The ends justify the means” (meaning “whatever dastardly things I have to do are totally fine because the result will be good”). However, Machiavelli said no such thing; instead, he said “For that reason, let a prince have the credit of conquering and holding his state, the means will always be considered honest, and he will be praised by everybody …” as a (satirical) commentary on rationalizing power and authority.
Name the Shakespearean play where a character comments, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s tough, probably because the line doesn’t come from Shakespeare at all (and it’s also not a real line). The classic quip to mock a woman’s anger comes from The Mourning Bride by William Congreve, and it reads: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Scorned in this sense doesn’t mean “angry;” it means “replaced.” So stop using this line to describe her unless you’re talking about a woman who’s been replaced with another lover — in which case, we’re on her side.
Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, known as “Leo the Lip,” was credited with coining this cynical aphorism in 1946 as a response to a sportswriter asking why he couldn’t be a nice guy (Durocher had been smack-talking the San Francisco Giants). But he didn’t come up with such a clean quote right away; Durocher dismissively said, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place,” which has been neatened up over the last 70 years to “Nice guys finish last.”
Winston Churchill was a master of rhetoric, and every good rhetorician knows the value of repetition. However, he didn’t say “Never, never, never give up” as many inspirational office posters would have you believe. Churchill’s real quote — “‘Never give in—never, never, never, never, except to convictions of honour and good sense” — is even more profound, but sadly, not as ubiquitous.
The now-popular idiom “the devil is in the details” refers to one’s tendency to ignore the complications that turn a pleasantly simplistic task into a detail-oriented nightmare. German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is often credited with inventing the phrase, as is French novelist Gustave Flaubert. However, van der Rohe’s quote was "Der liebe Gott steckt im detail" (“God is in the detail”), and Flaubert’s was "Le bon Dieu est dans le détail" (“the good God is in the detail”), both of which are sharp right turns from the devil. The next time you warn someone not to gloss over small tasks, consider which deity you want to invoke to make your point.
Anyone who’s read Walden knows that Henry David Thoreau uses a lot of words to express a lot of opinions. While he may have considered the concise “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined” advice, his actual quote was, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” It’s actually a lot more inspirational when you think about it, but like many Thoreau quotes, hard to fit onto a t-shirt.
If any of these quotes tripped you up, consider shoring up the rest of your go-to conversational phrases with: