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

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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. 

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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

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