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chloe effron (wikimedia commons & istock)

15 Great Quotes You Wish They’d Said (But They Didn’t!)

chloe effron (wikimedia commons & istock)
chloe effron (wikimedia commons & istock)

If you use social media it's nearly impossible not to be continuously confronted with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Mark Twain or Marilyn Monroe (usually written in flowing script over an artistically filtered photo). Fact checking to see if that particular heroic figure actually said that particular bon mot is unnecessary; all that matters is how nice the two pair together on your Pinterest board. But we at Mental Floss have a burning love of accurate history. Here are 15 famous and often misattributed quotes that would have sounded great coming from these 15 famous mouths, even though they didn't.

1. “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars…” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

This one is pretty easy to fact check, as long as The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson is what it claims to be. The closest Emerson comes to talking about seeing stars in the dark is a passage in Conduct of Life where he talks about exploring the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. The tour guide took him to “the Star Chamber,” and turned off all the lanterns the group had brought. A hidden lamp reflected off the crystals in the roof of the cave to look like a brilliant starry sky. Ripe for allusion, to be sure, but Emerson himself never actually makes it.

2. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Gandhi

The thing that turns a sentence into a saying is repetition and exposure. This means more than one person has to encounter it, which is why most great quotes come from speeches or books. The above wisdom might have come from Gandhi, but if it did only one person heard it: his grandson, Arun Gandhi. Author Keith Akers put a lot of effort into tracking down the origin of this phrase, and the only thing he could discover with certainty was that it wasn’t in anything directly attributed to Gandhi. Arun claims in print that it (or at least something similar) was something he often heard his grandfather speak.

3. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." — Nelson Mandela

It depends on the length of the medium whether or not this inspirational passage is quoted in its entirety, or just the first two lines. Many people believe it comes from the address Mandela delivered when he became the first black president of South Africa in 1994. However, as Snopes reveals, Mandela did not speak these words during that speech or any other that we know of. If he had, he would have been repeating the words of Marianne Williamson, written in her 1992 book A Return to Love. Williamson knows that her words are often credited to Mandela, and says it would have been an honor to have been quoted by him.

4. Nancy Astor: "Winston if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee."
WInston Churchill: "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

Nancy Astor was, by early 20th century standards, a real piece of work. She was the first female member of the British Parliament, which some doubted she deserved since she was born American and had taken over the post after her second, wildly wealthy husband Waldorf Astor vacated it. She was reportedly out of touch, not too interested in politics, and supported causes that were unpopular in England, like temperance. Winston Churchill was, as you know, The Man. Or at least that's how history remembers him. And although this interchange could have happened, it probably didn’t—the joke had existed for decades in other forms. There is a name for attributing quotes to Churchill, coined by Nigel Rees, called Churchillian Drift.

5. "One man can make a difference and every man should try." — John F. Kennedy

This one is pretty close. One of the first publications of this quote is from a 1989 book, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, and it’s attributed to Jackie Kennedy, not her late husband. It was written on a card in a traveling exhibit celebrating the opening of the JFK Library in 1979. The latest 2010 reprint of the quote book still contains the passage and attribution, meaning no one was able to contest that it was Jackie who said it in the intervening years.

6. “If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.” — Abraham Lincoln

It’s not your fault if you were sure Lincoln actually said this. It’s Disney’s. Because besides manufacturing completely unrealistic expectations for little girls' weddings and hairstyles, they also manufacture the occasional Abraham Lincoln quote. This was the quote inscribed in Pollyanna’s dead father’s locket, in the 1960 film Pollyanna. Roy Disney loved the quote and had it inscribed on thousands of lockets to sell in the Disneyland gift shops, which greatly disturbed the screenwriter David Swift, who had made up the quote. When Swift called Disney with the bad news, all the lockets were recalled.

7. “Any man worth his salt will stick up for what he believes right, but it takes a slightly better man to acknowledge instantly and without reservation that he is in error.” — Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson was perhaps not the most reflective of men. He was more a man of action, joining the American Revolution at the age of 13 and never slowing down (as an old man, he beat down an attempted assassin with his cane). One could even argue he didn’t have a habit of acknowledging he was in error, because he did have a habit of dueling to prove he was right. Some historians say he participated in up to 100 duels.  He’s thought to have only killed one man: Charles Dickinson, whom he shot after calmly taking Dickinson’s bullet straight to the chest. At any rate, the above quote is most likely from American General Peyton March, who worked in a much more diplomatic manner than Jackson, causing him to receive medals of honor from at least 11 other countries during his years of service as a military attaché and Army Chief of Staff.

8. “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do something I can do.” — Helen Keller

Keller was a prodigious writer, penning 12 books and countless smaller pieces in her life. She wrote a lot of inspiring stuff—but she didn’t write this. Her friend, author Edward Everett Hale, did. She began writing him letters, as she enjoyed his books, from an early age. They were friends until his death in 1909.

9. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” — Sigmund Freud

Freud was one of the first to understand that sometimes the human brain needs metaphors. Objects to represent feelings, especially in dreams. The cigar is blatantly phallic, and people stick it in their mouths, both of which fall under the term “Freudian Imagery.” So it was refreshing to think that the father of Psychoanalysis could admit not everything had to mean something deeper. Sometimes a cigar isn’t a penis representing how your mother’s love castrated you. Sometimes it’s just for smoking.

The problem is, as researched by The Quote Investigator, he really wrote a good deal about cigars being penises. And breasts, and … just lots more than a cigar. And there is no record of him saying otherwise, though people started attributing it to him in the mid-1950s, long after his death. Freud was fond of cigars, and it might have been hard to swallow in that era that Freud himself was toting around a substitute phallus/breast/symbol of psychological trauma everywhere he went.

10. “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.” — Bill Gates

In Microsoft’s empire there are no doubt a few employees that would have given 14 year old Gates a swirly or two, but Gates never pointed it out with this particular witticism. Snopes sussed this one out thoroughly: The quote comes from one of those awful email forwards our loved ones bombarded us with in the late '90s. It was part of a much longer list written by author Charles J. Sykes, titled "Rules Kids Won’t Learn in Schools." It was printed in many newspapers across the country in 1996 and was the basis of his similarly named book, released in 2007.

11. “If you can dream it, you can do it.” — Walt Disney

This is a rather vague line of piffle that would be meaningless if spoken by anyone except a guy who dedicated his life to suspending reality. Walt never said it, but it’s still a part of his legacy: It was written by a Disney Imagineer named Tom Fitzgerald to be part of the Horizons ride at Epcot Center in 1983. It was apparently used repeatedly in the development and production of that ride, and since people were sitting in a Disney attraction when they read it, the connection came naturally. Fitzgerald has said he finds it amusing that his words are attributed to Walt, and that he supposes he should be flattered.

12. “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” — Marilyn Monroe

Know this. If you type “Marilyn Monroe” and “Quote” into any social media that supports pictures, you will be deluged. Just assume half of the quotes are wrong. Marilyn dominates my Pinterest feed. She is an ardent feminist, she is a fragile flower. She is devoted to body acceptance, she advocates shoes and lipstick to solve any girl’s problem. She is wise as Buddha and more sharp-witted than Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker combined. Part of this misattribution phenomenon must be owed to just how many beautiful photographs there are of Monroe, all aching to have wisdom written over them. It’s also a continuance of what made Marilyn so popular in life. You could project onto her. She looked innocent and sultry, street smart and fragile, playful and tragic, all at once. And even though she spoke millions of words in interviews and on-screen … she didn’t say much. So we get to attach our own sentiments to her. For the record, this quote is believed to come from 1960s counterculture icon, and man, Timothy Leary.

13. “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.” — Jane Austen

This is an example of a writer’s words being tidied into bumper-sticker-length profundity. There is a passage containing the words “quick succession of busy nothings,” in the book Mansfield Park, but it’s not intended to be a revelation of the desperate futility of existence. It’s describing a specific period of time as the characters wait for a carriage. Jane Austen’s books relied on a succession of busy nothings; they are part of the charm of her world. It’s doubtful she’d ever truly profane them.

14. “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Dr. Seuss

It certainly feels Seussian, doesn’t it? All topsy-turvy and self-affirming. But he never wrote it. It was something an extremely successful (remarkably non-childlike and whimsical) businessman and presidential adviser, Bernard Baruch, said to a newspaper columnist who asked him how he handled the seating of all the rich bigwigs at his dinner parties. “I never bother about that. Those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter.” However, Baruch was probably quoting an already well known phrase from the 1930s coined by that great philosopher Anonymous. The first part of the quote, “Be who you are...” just attached itself over the years.

15. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” — Mark Twain

Like Marilyn Monroe, Americans tend to use Twain as a catch-all for unsourced wisdom. Not because Twain was a blank slate, like Marilyn, but because he said so much. Twain wrote endlessly, both fiction and non-fiction, and almost all of it contained cheerful winks of sarcasm. Some witticisms, whose real originators are lost to history, fit Twain so well that they are handed over to him. This one was likely not Twain, as both Snopes and Quote Investigator reveal. The first written record of this saying appeared five years after Twain’s death, and since Twain’s own father died when he was 11, this quote would have had to come from a character of his creation. None of his works of fiction have been found to contain these famous lines. 

Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
10 Pats Born on St. Patrick's Day
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
A photo from the 1919 wedding of Princess Patricia of Connaught to the Hon. Alexander Ramsay.
Bain News Service - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Need some St. Patrick's Day conversation fodder that doesn't involve leprechauns or four-leaf clovers? Ask your friends to name a "Pat" born on St. Patrick's Day. If they can't, they owe you a drink—then you can wow them with this list of 10.


Princess Patricia was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who gave up all of her royal titles when she married a commoner. She was born at Buckingham Palace on March 17, 1886.


The Dallas star was born on March 17, 1949. And here's a totally random fact about Duffy: His nephew is Barry Zito, former MLB pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.


Pattie Boyd
Larry Ellis, Express/Getty Images

Pattie Boyd is well-known to lovers of classic rock: She has been married three times, including once to George Harrison and once to Eric Clapton, who both wrote a couple of the most romantic songs in rock history in her honor (including The Beatles's "Something" and Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"). Boyd was a model when she met Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964; the pair were married two years later. They divorced in 1977 and she married Clapton, Harrison's close friend, in 1979. She also had an affair with Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones toward the end of her marriage to The Quiet Beatle.


Belfast-born Pat Rice is a former footballer and coach who spent the bulk of his career with Arsenal F.C. (that's "football club," a.k.a. soccer to us Americans). He joined the Gunners in 1964 as a mere apprentice, turning pro a couple of years later. He became captain in 1977 and left the club for a few years in the early 1980s to go to Watford, but returned after he retired from playing in 1984. In 2012, after nearly 30 years with the organization, he announced his retirement.


Patty Maloney is an actress with dwarfism who stands just three feet, 11 inches tall. She has appeared in many movies and T.V. shows over the years, including operating the Crypt Keeper puppet in Tales from the Crypt. She also played Chewbacca's son Lumpy in The Star Wars Holiday Special.


Michael C. Hall and Mathew St. Patrick in 'Six Feet Under'

Ok, so Mathew St. Patrick is the stage name of the actor, but he was born Patrick Matthews in Philadelphia on March 17, 1968. You probably know him best as David's boyfriend Keith on Six Feet Under.


He may not be a household name, but the recording artists Patrick Adams writes for and helps produce certainly are. Adams has been involved in the careers of Salt-N-Pepa, Sister Sledge, Gladys Knight, Rick James, and Coolio, among others.


It's possible you look at Patrick McDonnell's work every day, depending on which comics your newspaper carries. McDonnell draws a strip called Mutts featuring a dog and a cat named Earl and Mooch, respectively. Charles Schulz called it one of the best comic strips of all time.


 Singer/Guitarist Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins performs onstage during Live Earth New York at Giants Stadium on July 7, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey
Evan Agostini, Getty Images

Yes, you know him better as just plain old Billy Corgan: he's the face of the Smashing Pumpkins, engages in public feuds with Courtney Love, and maybe once dated Jessica Simpson. He made his debut on March 17, 1967.


Patricia Ford is a retired model probably best known for her Playboy photoshoots in the 1990s.

Getty Images
11 Incredible Stephen Hawking Quotes
Getty Images
Getty Images

When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at age 21, doctors thought he'd only survive a few more years. But the theoretical physicist defied the odds: Hawking, who passed away yesterday, lived to be 76. Here are 11 quotes from the director of research and founder of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge and author of A Brief History of Time


"At school, I was never more than about halfway up the class. It was a very bright class. My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers. But my classmates gave me the nickname Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was twelve, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don't know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided."

— From the lecture "My Brief History," 2010


"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."

— From Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, 2010


“I wouldn’t compare it to sex, but it lasts longer.”

— From a lecture at Arizona State University, April 2011


"If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one's physical disability will not present a serious handicap. I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway. On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal. My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can."

— From "Handicapped People and Science," Science Digest 92, No. 9, September 1984


"I would go back to 1967, and the birth of my first child, Robert. My three children have brought me great joy."

— To The New York Times, May 2011


"I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road."

— From Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays


"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works."

— To Diane Sawyer/ABC News, June 2010


"Next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist."

— From Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, 2010

9. On HIS I.Q.

"I have no idea. People who boast about their I.Q. are losers."

— To The New York Times, December 2004


“They are a complete mystery.”

— To New Scientist, January 2012


"One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don't throw it away."

— To Diane Sawyer/ABC News, June 2010


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