Mark Twain never said that — and 18 other quotes incorrectly attributed to famous people
When Yogi Berra died last month, numerous outlets chose to honor him by publishing his most famous Yogi-isms. The problem is, some of his most popular sayings (“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded,” “It’s deja vu all over again,” “The future isn’t what it used to be”) probably weren’t actually uttered by Yogi Berra. Somewhere along the way, these nuggets of accidental wisdom were misattributed to Berra and the link stuck. Say enough quotable things in your life, and at some point, you’ll inevitably be misquoted.
Where misquotes are concerned, the Internet can be friend or foe. On the one hand, it makes it easier than ever to prove that Gandhi most certainly did not say whatever words you just saw him credited with in your Facebook feed. On the other hand, the Internet can act as a high-tech version of the game Telephone, helping misinformation — including misattributed quotes — spread with previously unknown rapidity. Things get repeated until people start to take them for granted, and pretty soon it seems like every quote ever uttered came from just a few people: Einstein, MLK Jr., Wilde, Freud, and a few select others — often long after those people were dead.
Below are a few of the most common misquotes, some of which you likely know and maybe a few you don’t. (And some of which you may never have thought to question.) And remember, when in doubt, there’s always the Quote Investigator and Snopes.
1. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi
Like so many of the quotes attributed to Gandhi online, this one sounds like it was written by someone who went to a liberal arts college and now works in lifestyle branding. It is, of course, totally fake. The New York Times notes that the only real Gandhi quote that approximates it is the following: “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….We need not wait to see what others do.”
2. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” —Maya Angelou
Pretty much anyone could be forgiven for thinking this quote was delivered by the late poet Maya Angelou, who famously penned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. President Obama credited Angelou when he used the quote to open his remarks at the 2013 National Medals of the Arts and Humanities presentation. Likewise, the United States Postal Service chose to include it on a postage stamp honoring Dr. Angelou earlier this year. But on the eve of the stamp’s release, the Washington Post noted the phrase — which Angelou had never claimed was her own — was actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund, a children’s book author, in a 1967 collection of poetry titled A Cup of Sun. The USPS decided to release the stamp anyway. “Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works,” a spokesperson told the Post. “The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.”
3. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” —Voltaire
Perhaps the Internet’s favorite quote Voltaire never said. The statement was actually written by one of his many biographers, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in her 1906 book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall invented the line to sum up Voltaire’s thinking in regard to the writings of French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius, but because it was written in first person, many misread it as an actual quote. Some have suggested that the quote was actually taken from a 1770 letter from Voltaire to Monsieur le Riche in which he wrote, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” But many scholars contest the authenticity of that quotation as well. The only verifiable Voltaire quote that even comes close to the oft-cited misquote is from his Treatise on Tolerance, which includes the line, “Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”
4. “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” —Marilyn Monroe
For some reason, Marilyn Monroe has been credited with saying lots of things that actually came out of other famous people’s mouths. In this case, the phrase originally appeared in a 1976 essay by historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, though the wording differed slightly. (“Well-behaved women seldom make history….”) Noting how the quote — often altered just a bit — had made a “weird escape into popular culture,” Ulrich wrote a book with the same title in 2007.
5. “There’s a sucker born every minute.” —P.T. Barnum
This quote is so reliably misattributed to huckster and legendary showman P.T. Barnum that Wikipedia dedicates a whole page just to identifying its actual source. The answer isn’t definitive; several 19th-century colorful characters are associated with the phrase. The most likely, according to those who’ve taken the time to do some digging, is David Hannum, another showman with whom Barnum had a dispute. Though even that attribution is suspect.
6. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” —Mark Twain
Plenty of Mark Twain’s most cited quotes, from “Golf is a good walk spoiled” to “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” weren’t uttered by the humorist at at all. This particular phrase doesn’t appear in any of Twain’s much pored-over writings or correspondence. In fact, the closest Twain ever came to writing the above statement is in a letter where he briefly discusses the weather in Paris using a quip he acknowledges was first written by 18th-century British actor James Quin: “More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, ‘Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘Last summer.’ I judge he spent his summer in Paris.”
7. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
The beauty of a good misquote, as with any well-done knock-off or forgery, is that it captures the essence of the supposed speaker — at least to the point of believability and often a bit too perfectly. This quote reads like something you might see on a T-shirt made by Oscar Wilde if he were born 130 years later and been really into silk screening. It never actually shows up in his writings, though a few people have noted real Wilde quotes that express similar sentiments. For example, in his De Profundis letter, Wilde wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” And in an 1882 book introduction, he wrote, “[O]ne’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”
8. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” —Albert Einstein
Although falsely attributed to a number of famous thinkers, Albert Einstein (who didn’t say so many things) is most often associated with this quote. There’s no scholarly consensus on who actually coined the phrase, though one theory holds it first appeared in “approval version” of the 1981 book Narcotics Anonymous, which includes the sentence: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
9. “I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.” —Ginger Rogers
By pretty much every account, including from Ginger Rogers herself, the actual source of this quote was comic artist Bob Thaves. The cartoonist used the line in a 1982 Frank and Ernest strip, below. “Backwards In High Heels” was adapted as the name of a musical based on Rogers’ life.
10. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” —Gloria Steinem
There is, apparently, an old proverb dating back to 1909 which states, “A man without a woman is like a fish without a tail.” More recently, in a 1958 college newspaper, American philosopher Charles S. Harris wrote, “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.” But Irina Dunn, an Australian author, filmmaker and politician, had the best take on the phrase. As a young student in 1970, Dunn says she wrote “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” on the doors of two public toilets in Sydney. Steinem also credits Dunn with creating the phrase.
11. “Strategery.” —George W. Bush
George W. Bush was kind of like the Yogi Berra of presidents, except without all the accidental cleverness. In any case, this Bush-ism was actually created by Will Ferrell in a “Saturday Night Live” spoof of a 2000 presidential debate. It later seemed believable because the president was highly gaffe-prone, and because the Bush team began to jokingly use the term. Per Wikipedia, “Bush’s strategists…came to be known within the White House as ‘The Department of Strategery’ or the ‘Strategery Group.’”
12. “I can see Russia from my house.” —Sarah Palin
When asked how Alaska’s proximity to Russia gave her insight into the country’s affairs, Sarah Palin answered, “They’re our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” (This is, without getting into all the specifics you can read here, mostly true.) What she did not say was, “I can see Russia from my house,” which was actually uttered by Tina Fey, dressed as Sarah Palin, in a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
13. “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
After the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, social media was flooded with this quote. Long story short, it’s not an actual MLK quotation, but was penned by a woman named Jessica Dovey. She originally paired her own words with a quote from MLK’s 1963 book Strength to Love, and clearly made King’s words distinct from her own with quotation marks. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the 140-letter count of Twitter resulted in the two statements being condensed into this misattribution.
14. “You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” —Abraham Lincoln
Some serious effort has gone into trying to determine whether Lincoln ever said this, and so far, the verdict is it seems unlikely. (Lengthy pieces on the topic from the Abraham Lincoln Association can be found here and here.) Ralph Keyes, in his book The Quote Verifier, points out that the phrase was tied to Lincoln by a 1904 book titled Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, which isn’t considered a reliable source.
15. “Give me liberty or give me death!” —Patrick Henry
Before we get into this, maybe you should take off your tricorne hat and have a seat. Are you sitting? Here goes. While this line is often cited as the conclusion of a stirring speech Patrick Henry delivered at the Virginia convention in 1775, he left behind no notes or written versions of the speech, and no one there at the time did, either. The first documented version of the speech as we know it appeared in William Wirt’s 1817 biography of Henry, based mostly on memories from Henry’s contemporaries, which were very likely fallible. When the book was finally released, many of those same contributors panned it as deeply flawed. (Thomas Jefferson called it “a poor book” and said it offered “an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry.”) What’s more, some scholars have noted the line bears a heavy resemblance to text from the 1712 play Cato. (“It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”)
16. “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” —Vince Lombardi
Another quote that’s incorrectly assigned so often Wikipedia dedicates a page to it. Lombardi gets the credit most of the time, but coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders used the phrase in various forms on multiple occasions, including in a 1955 Sports Illustrated article where he’s quoted directly.
17. “I am the devil and I have come to do the devil’s work” —Charles Manson
Anything that anyone ever says Charles Manson said in the midst of carrying out the gruesome and tragic Tate-Labianca murders is guaranteed to be misattributed, since Manson wasn’t present for any of the crimes. His followers, dubbed the Manson Family, carried them out according to Manson’s wishes. This particular quote (“I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business”) was said by Charles “Tex” Watson, a 24-year-old Manson follower, as the Family carried out the horrific murders of Sharon Tate and four others.
18. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” —Sigmund Freud
Maybe, at a party or something, Sigmund Freud would cool it with all the symbolism and reading into stuff. But if he did, this isn’t an example of a thing he said in that moment. At least, not according to any documented source. Alan C. Elms, a former professor of psychology at the University of California, actually did a deep dive on this in a research paper titled “Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous ‘Quotations’ and Their Actual Sources.” Elms could find no first or secondary sources to support the attribution of the quote to Freud.
19. “Then what are we fighting for?” —Winston Churchill (on cutting funding for the arts)
Whenever Republicans announce we should turn all the museums into banks and make being an artist a crime under the law, the Internet responds by wallpapering social media with this quote. Even Kevin Spacey, speaking in defense of arts funding, mistakenly recited the quote and labeled it a Churchill original. But historian Richard A. Langworth notes that the quotation doesn’t appear “among Churchill’s 15 million published words in speeches, papers, letters, articles or books,” which means the quote is almost certainly bogus. However, a confirmed quote from Churchill spoken at the Royal Academy in 1938 suggests the Prime Minister may have shared the sentiment behind the misquote: “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them…Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”