Baseball Hall of Famer and language mangler Yogi Berra is famous for saying many things. Among them is this: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” He’s not alone. Were we to choose, along with Yogi, an all-star team of the misquoted and misattributed throughout history, we could include the likes of Shakespeare and Churchill, Bogart and Cagney, Marie Antoinette and Paul Revere, Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk. Indeed, the misquote has become something of a national pastime.
Leo Durocher could manage this all-star team. Before a 1946 game with the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager declared, “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.” Sportswriters took over from there, increasing the pop and decreasing the wordage, and Durocher’s legendary line became “Nice guys finish last.” He long denied having uttered those exact words, but in a lesson in the perpetuation of myths, it became the title of a 1975 book co-written by Durocher himself.
The words also lent themselves to another book title: Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by quote collector and corrector Ralph Keyes. Unlike most of us, who accept classic quotes without a need to verify, Keyes did some painstaking research to find out the truth. According to Keyes, misquotes take three basic forms:
The wrong words in the right mouth
The right words in the wrong mouth
The wrong words in the wrong mouth.
So let’s take a tour of some of history’s most famous misquotations, each categorized and corrected:
THE WRONG WORDS IN THE RIGHT MOUTH:
Sometimes the person said it—just not that way. The most common process by which this occurs is what Keyes describes as “bumper stickering”—condensing an unwieldy comment into a concise quote for the ages (as Durocher’s was). The limitations of the mind can wreak havoc on the truth, too, particularly with original true phrasing. Keyes describes it as a sort of historical game of “Telephone.” In the end, the message remains largely the same; the quote does not. Some classic examples:
1. “War is hell.”
Not long after the U.S. Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman told an Ohio audience, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come.” Indeed, they did, but they shortened it.
2. “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.”
What Winston Churchill actually said, in his address to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, was: “I have nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat.” Over the years, time shortened and alphabetized it.
3. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”
That’s how everyone repeats it, right? But in Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson actually said, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
4. “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”
In the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, Mae West actually said it in this order: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” In her next movie, I’m No Angel, she did say, “Come up and see my sometime.” But without the “Why don’t you.”
5. “Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him well!”
If you want to quote Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” properly, the line is: “Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”
6. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
Another frequently misquoted line from “Hamlet.” It was really the other way around: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
7. “All that glitters is not gold.”
When Shakespeare’s Prince of Morocco voices this sentiment in “The Merchant of Venice,” he actually says, “All that glistens is not gold.”
8. “A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.”
Sure, except that in “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by another word would smell as sweet.”
9. “He who hesitates is lost.”
The actual wording from Joseph Addison’s 1713 play, Cato, was this: “The woman that deliberates is lost.”
10. “Music soothes the savage beast.”
The original line from William Cosgreve’s play, The Mourning Bride, was: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Over time, it lost its charm and its breast.
11. “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
In Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, the title character doesn’t actually ask for it. He says, “Please, sir, I want some more.”
12. “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
The actual line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is: “Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink.”
13. “Houston, we have a problem.”
When Tom Hanks played Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, this is what he said. But what Lovell actually said in 1970 was “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
14. “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
Oliver Hardy did express this to Stan Laurel. But the actual quote, in a short film called The Hardy Murder Case, was: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” The source of confusion? Undoubtedly the title of their duo’s next film—Another Fine Mess.
15. “We don’t need no steenking badges!”
The actual line, from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is: “Badges? We ain’t go no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!” A parody scene in Blazing Saddles may be most to blame for the misquote.
16. “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
The actual dialogue from A Few Good Men is:
“You want answers?”
“I want the truth!”
“I want the truth!”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
17. “I’m out of order? You’re out of order! This whole court’s out of order!”
If Jack Nicholson can be often misquoted, Al Pacino can be, too. What his character Arthur Kirkland says, in And Justice for All, is: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”
18. “If you build it, they will come.”
They do come at the end of Field of Dreams—a line of cars stretching to the horizon. But what the cornfield whispers say are: “If you build it, he will come.”
19. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…”
The Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is actually talking to a “Magic mirror on the wall…”
20. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
In the “Dragnet” series, Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” And he said, “All we have are the facts, ma’am.” But never “just the facts.”
THE RIGHT WORDS IN THE WRONG MOUTH:
When history attributes the right phrase to the wrong person, either it has been mistakenly attributed or consciously appropriated. Keyes calls the latter “lip-syncing”—mouthing someone else’s words as if they were your own. He explains, “An axiom among public speakers is this: the first time you use a quote, introduce it by saying, ‘As Joe Doe once said…’ The second time, ‘It’s been said…’ The third time, ‘As I’ve often said…’” A few examples:
21. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
This is often attributed to Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. But it was said by Colonel William Prescott during the Battle of Bunker Hill. And he was only repeating similar statements made decades earlier by both Prince Charles of Prussia and Frederick the Great.
22. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
If Nathan Hale ever said this before being executed as a British spy, then he was borrowing and altering a line from Cato: “What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country.”
23. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
JFK sincerely meant this inaugural exhortation, but he was merely echoing statements made by Warren G. Harding in 1916 and Oliver Wendell Holmes before him in 1884.
24. “Some men see things and say, ‘Why?’ But I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’”
Nowadays most people think Bobby Kennedy (or his speechwriters) conceived the line, a sentiment that was, in fact, the reason the publisher behind this list decided to call ourselves Why Not Books. But the line is actually George Bernard Shaw’s: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never wore, and I say, ‘Why not?’”
25. “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”
Author Harlan Ellison stated this in a mid-1960s nonfiction essay. A generation later, in his autobiography, Frank Zappa wrote, “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen.”
26. “Go west, young man.”
Even when the quote-repeater gives proper credit, it doesn’t assure proper attribution. In an article for Indiana’s Terre Haute Express in 1851, John Babsone Doule first articulated what became Manifest Destiny’s motto. Horace Greeley reprinted the article in his New York Tribune, and although he gave Soule full credit, the advice has ever after been attributed to him.
27. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.”
In his autobiography, Willie Sutton claimed that credit for his famous life-of-crime explanation belongs to an “enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy.” But Sutton later wrote a book called Where the Money Is.
Often, a pithy phrase needs to be attached to a famous mouth, whether or not that famous mouth ever uttered it. Keyes labels this the “flypaper effect,” the kind of phenomenon that has, historically, made the most eminently quotable people seem even more prolific. If a line sounds like something they would have said or should have said, they’ll inevitably receive credit for it. For instance:
28. “Let them eat cake.”
Marie Antoinette’s famous dismissal was actually a line from Confessions, written by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—when Antoinette was only 12.
29. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing?”
Vince Lombardi, right? Nope, it was UCLA coach Red Sanders.
30. “There’s a sucker born every minute?”
There is evidence that it wasn’t P.T. Barnum who said this, but rather a competitor of his commenting on one of Barnum’s exhibits. But you can bet that Barnum agreed with the premise.
31. “You can’t trust anyone over 30.”
A guy named Jack Weinberg actually said it at UC-Berkeley in the late Sixties. The San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the quote, other newspapers picked it up, and eventually it got attached to Youth International Party co-founder Abbie Hoffman.
32. “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”
It may be W.C. Fields’s best-remembered observation, except he didn’t say it. It was originally a remark made in 1937 by a New York Times reporter. The line was printed in a Harper’s Monthly column and then repeated by a sociologist as he introduced Fields at a 1939 banquet. The line stuck to the comedian.
33. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Voltaire often gets the credit for something his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, came up with as an illustration of his beliefs.
34. “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Senator Everett Dirksen occasionally uttered the “billion here, billion there” part.” But the rest was conjured up by a newspaper reporter.
THE WRONG WORDS IN THE WRONG MOUTH:
Among famous misquotes, the most remarkable tend to be the ones that have become attached to certain icons as classic catch-phrases yet, in reality, were never uttered at all.
35. “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Never in Arthur Conan Doyle’s four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes did the famed detective ever once utter those words in that order. He said, “Elementary.” And he said, “My dear Watson.” But never together until a P.G. Wodehouse story published in book form in 1915. The phrase was only later made famous as a Holmes line by actor Basil Rathbone.
36. “On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia.”
A 1925 issue of Vanity Fair presented a group of artists supposedly writing their own epitaphs. Fields’s was: “Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” And he may not have written the epitaph at all.
37. “You dirty rat! You killed my brother!”
A staple of any James Cagney impression, but—although he came close a couple of times—the actor never hissed this in any of his films.
38. “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
The most famous Tarzan , swimmer-turned-actor Johnny Weismuller, never once communicated this.
39. “Play it again, Sam.”
An iconic line from perhaps the most classic film. But it didn’t happen. In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman said, “Play it once, Sam, for old times’ sake, play ‘As Time Goes By.’” And Humphrey Bogart said, “You played it for her, you can play it for me… If she can stand to listen to it, I can. Play it.”
40. “Beam me up, Scotty!
William Shatner’s Captain Kirk traveled by transporter all the time in “Star Trek.” He said, “Energize.” He said, “Beam me aboard.” He said, “Two to beam up.” But he never made this specific request. Yet James Doohan, who played Scotty, used it as the title of his autobiography.
41. “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor not a…”
Dr. Leonard McCoy made this a “Star Trek” staple—the “I’m a doctor” part. But he never said, “Damn it.” Not once. The closest anyone came to swearing in the original series was when Captain Kirk said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
42. “Luke, I am your father.”
I’ve actually said this to my son Luke. But the correct quote is: “No. I am your father.”
43. “Do you feel lucky, punk?”
In Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Callahan actually said, “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots, or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, is all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But, being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
44. “The British are coming!”
The colonists themselves were still British, so it’s likely that Revere’s warning was something along the lines of: “The regulars are coming!”
45. “I cannot tell a lie.”
Forever attributed to young George Washington, it was most likely a biographer’s lie.