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

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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. 

© 2017 USPS
Pop Culture
Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
15 Surprising Facts About Steve Buscemi
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

With his meme-worthy eyes, tireless work schedule, and penchant for playing lovable losers, Steve Buscemi is arguably the king of character actors. Moving seamlessly between big-budget films and shoestring independent projects, he’s appeared in well over 100 movies in the past 30 years. But if you think he’s anything like the oddballs and villains he regularly plays—well, you don’t know Buscemi. In celebration of the Brooklyn native's 60th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about the Golden Globe-winning actor.


It only seems appropriate that Buscemi, who dies on screen so frequently, would be born on such a foreboding date. Growing up in Brooklyn and Valley Stream, New York, Buscemi also experienced plenty of real-life misfortune. As a kid, he was hit by a bus and by a car (in separate incidents). On the plus side, he used the money from the legal settlement following the bus accident to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York City.


As a teenager, Buscemi worked a series of odd jobs: ice cream truck driver, mover, gas station attendant. He even sold newspapers in the toll lane of the Triborough Bridge. When Buscemi turned 18, his father, a sanitation worker, encouraged his son to take the civil service exam and become a New York City firefighter. Four years later, in 1980, the future star became a member of Engine Co. 55, located in New York City's Little Italy district. While he answered emergency calls during the day, at night Buscemi played improv clubs and auditioned for acting roles.

After four years working for the FDNY, Buscemi landed one of the lead roles in Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986), a drama set during the early days of AIDS in New York. Buscemi took a three-month leave of absence during filming, and afterwards decided not to return.


For a brief while, Buscemi tried his hand at stand-up comedy (he bombed). In 1984, he met fellow aspiring actor Mark Boone, Jr., and the two began performing together. Part improv, part scripted comedy, the two would often carry out power struggles that pitted thin-man Buscemi against the larger Boone. The New York Times called their act “theater in the absurdist vein.”


Like any hard-working actor, Buscemi has had his share of failed auditions. His tryout for Alan Parker’s Fame lasted less than 30 seconds. In the late ‘80s, Martin Scorsese brought him in four different times to read for The Last Temptation of Christ. (Buscemi ended up reading every apostle’s part before being turned away.) He also auditioned for the part of Seinfeld’s George Costanza—at least according to numerous sources, including Jason Alexander himself. But it turns out this tidbit—fueled, no doubt, by the thought of a very twitchy, bug-eyed Costanza—isn’t true. On a recent episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Buscemi addressed the rumor in his typical good-natured way: “I never did [the audition] and I don’t know how to correct it because I don’t know how the Internet works.”


After gaining momentum with roles in Mystery Train, Reservoir Dogs, Barton Fink, and other films, Buscemi took a turn behind the camera with 1996’s Trees Lounge. The movie, which he also wrote, follows a bumbling layabout named Tommy who spends most of his time at the title bar in the town where he grew up. It’s a classic flick for Buscemi fans and, according to the actor, it was pretty much his life as a teenager living on Long Island. “I was truly directionless, living with my parents,” Buscemi said in an interview. “I was driving an ice-cream truck and working at a gas station… The drinking age was 18 then, so I spent every night hanging out with my friends in bars, drinking.”


Steve Buscemi in 'Fargo' (1996)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

He’s been shot numerous times, stabbed with an ice pick, riddled with throwing knives, tossed off a balcony, and fed to a wood chipper. Yes, Buscemi’s characters have died a variety of deaths, and the actor isn’t without a sense of humor about the whole matter. He’ll often joke in interviews that he’s living longer and longer as the years go by. Before the 2005 release of The Island, in which the aforementioned balcony-tossing occurs (and into a glass bar no less), Buscemi said he was happy his character lived almost a third of the way through the movie. Buscemi admitted that he will actually read ahead in any script he receives to see when and how he dies.


For connoisseurs of Buscemi's movie deaths, the demise of Fargo’s Carl Showalter by way of axe then wood chipper is the crème de la crème. But when asked about his own favorite onscreen death, Buscemi references another Coen brothers film: The Big Lebowski. In that movie his character, Donny Kerabatsos, succumbs to a heart attack. It’s a surprise for viewers, and so out-of-the-blue that Buscemi can’t help but be tickled at the randomness of it. “They thought, ‘Well, Buscemi’s in it, so we’ve gotta kill him,'" the actor said in an appearance on The Daily Show.


In Con Air, the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action movie filled with muscled-up prisoners, Buscemi played the most dangerous con of them all. His Garland Greene—a serial killer whose exploits “make the Manson family look like the Partridge family,” according to one character—enters the film strapped to a chair, Hannibal Lecter mask affixed to his face. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a friend of Buscemi’s, wrote the part with him in mind, and was tickled when Buscemi accepted the role. To this day, fans will still serenade the actor with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”


Steve Buscemi in Desperado
Columbia Pictures

Although he inevitably dies (courtesy of Danny Trejo’s throwing knives), Buscemi commands the opening of Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s stylish revenge movie, regaling bar patrons with the story of the title gunslinger, played by Antonio Banderas. Because his character’s name is never mentioned, Rodriguez decided to have some fun and name him "Buscemi" in the credits.


Buscemi’s crooked smile has helped him portray lowlifes and losers throughout his career. Dentists have offered to fix the actor’s teeth, but he always turns them down, knowing how valuable those chompers are to the Buscemi brand. In a guest starring role on The Simpsons, Buscemi poked fun at the matter after a dentist offers to straighten his character’s teeth: “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that!”


Many people pronounce his last name “Boo-shemmy,” but it turns out Buscemi himself pronounces it “Boo-semmy.” In interviews, Buscemi says he’s following his father’s pronunciation, and says he doesn’t begrudge anyone who says it differently. It turns out, though, that his fans have it right—or at least mostly right. On a trip to Sicily to visit family, Buscemi recounted recently on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he noticed everyone saying “Boo-SHAY-me.”


Steve Buscemi in 'Trees Lounge' (1996)
Live Entertainment

On April 12th, 2001, while filming Domestic Disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina, Buscemi, co-star Vince Vaughn, and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg went out for late night drinks at the Firebelly Lounge. After Vaughn traded insults with another patron (whose girlfriend had apparently been flirting with Vaughn), the two stepped outside, and a brief scuffle ensued before the two were separated. Buscemi, who was among the crowd that had gathered, was then confronted by a man who, after a brief exchange, attacked the actor with a pocketknife. Buscemi suffered stab wounds to his face, throat, and hands, and had to return to New York to recuperate. His attacker, Timothy Fogerty, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. In typical good-guy fashion, Buscemi declined to press additional charges and instead insisted Fogerty enter a substance abuse program.


After the horrific attack on New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, Buscemi—like many Americans—was desperate to help. Although it had been nearly 20 years since he had strapped on his fireman’s gear, the actor reunited with his Engine 55 brethren and for days scoured the towers’ debris for survivors. Buscemi didn’t want his actions publicized; when people asked to take his picture, he declined. It took more than 10 years, in fact, before word got out, thanks to a Facebook post from Engine 55. “Brother Steve worked 12-hour shifts alongside other firefighters digging and sifting through the rubble,” the post read. “This guy is a badass!”


People who take a tour of the historic Philadelphia prison may notice a familiar voice coming through their listening device. So how did Buscemi end up lending his talents to such a seemingly obscure place? It turns out Eastern State is a popular location for film and photo shoots. Scenes from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys were filmed there, as were album covers for artists like Tina Turner. In 2000, Buscemi scouted the penitentiary for a film project. The location didn’t work out, but the actor fell in love with the history and grand architecture of the 190-year-old prison. When officials asked for his help to celebrate the prison’s tenth year running tours, he agreed.



After years of playing disposable villains and losers on the periphery, Buscemi had grown accustomed to being passed over for leading roles. So when Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter offered him the part of corrupt politician Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in the award-winning HBO series, Buscemi offered his usual reply. “When Terry did call me and he said that he and Marty [Scorsese] wanted me to play this role, my response was, ‘Terry, I know you’re looking at other actors, and I just appreciate that my name is being thrown in,’" Buscemi recalled. "He said, ‘No, Steve, I just said we want you.’ It still didn’t sink in.” Eventually, of course, reality did sink in, and Buscemi went on to win a Golden Globe and Emmy Award across the show’s five seasons.


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