How famous quotes get distorted by quotation

In looking up famous quotes online, from time-to-time I find that someone has done an extensive mini-study to uncover the truth behind their origins (in fine Straight Dope style), or, in this case, to show the many inexact variations that have evolved through repetition.

An interesting example is the true origin of the mixed quote attributed to Andrew Tytler about the cycle of human freedom, going from bondage to spiritual faith to courage to Liberty to abundance to selfishness to complacency to apathy to dependence and back to bondage. This is often connected with another quote as though the two were originally spoken together, not merely complementary.

An online researcher claims to have tracked these quotes back to their true origins, arguing that they came–most likely–from two ordinary sources, a letter to the editor of a newspaper and a minor professional lecturer. Discovery by more famous people, and repetition in formal settings, created their fame, with Tytler then credited because he said similar things. We can’t credit a pair of unknown squibs with quotable wisdom, can we? I don’t know if the author of this little study was correct, but he’d apparently done his homework and it was fun to follow his evidence and reasoning to their conclusions.

It’s unlikely I’m the only one to notice these mini-studies online, but if the subject interests you, here is another nice example I found today.

The quote is from Edmund Burke, an 18th Century English (Irish) political theorist, philosopher, and politician.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

[Which I would reframe, myself, as: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do too little because it is inconvenient.”]

Here is the website discussing the many variants of Burke’s quote:

In fact, I’m thinking it’s not fair to reference the Tytler piece without citing it so you can read it for yourself. Here is the website.


One I’ve heard was Lenin’s supposed quote: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” A few problems.

One, Lenin was not a pithy speaker. He didn’t come up with great one-liners. The actual quote was "They [the capitalists] will furnish credits which will serve us for the support of the Communist Party in their countries and, by supplying us materials and technical equipment which we lack, will restore our military industry necessary for our future attacks against our suppliers. To put it in other words, they will work on the preparation of their own suicide."

Two, Lenin never literally said it. He never delivered this line publicly during his lifetime. He wrote it in some notes. These notes were collected after Lenin’s death in 1924 and were eventually published in 1961.

Three, while I can’t find the original text, I’ve heard the passage is taken out of context. Lenin’s main point in the original manuscript was that some short-sighted communists thought they could work with capitalists and dupe them into serving communist goals. Lenin gave the passage as an example of what these people thought. But Lenin disagreed with trying to make deals with capitalists and was warning communists against trying what the quote suggested.

I’m thinking of “God does not play dice”, supposedly by Einstein, but I think he didn’t say that exactly.

“Winning isn’t everything, [but] it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi.
The “but” changes the context. The “butless” quote is the one that usually rendered. The original seems to imply a more philosophical view of football, that he realizes that there’s more to the game than just winning–but that’s all the fans, owners, coaches, and players focus on.

He may have stated it in slightly more pragmatic terms, but it means the same thing.

Decades ago, President Eisenhower nominated former General Motors president Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson as Secretary of Defense. During confirmation hearings, he was asked if he could promise he’d act i nthe best interests of the USA, rather than the best interests of GM.

Wilson assured the confirmation panel that he would act in the country’s best interests, but really, “For years, I’ve thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”

That innocuous statement has long been misquoted as “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

The error was perhaps cemented with the song “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” from the Li’l Abner musical which has the line, “What’s good for General Bullmoose is what’s good for the U.S.A.”

Of course there are dozens of movie quotes that have this happen (“Play it again, Sam.”), but the one where this mangles the intention of the the line is from 41nd Street:

“You’re going out a youngster, but you’re coming back a star.”

The implication is that Ruby Keeler as the understudy is so talented that the audience will respond and cheer her.

Except the line is:

“You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”

The point is that the entire show – not to mention the careers of the actors and the producer – all depends on her giving an outstanding performance. If she does not, the entire enterprise fails. It’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on her to be spectacular.

You usually hear folks quote Pope’s “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” as though it’s a simple endorsement of ignorance, without any attachment to the next line: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

Carl Schurz’s “My country, right or wrong”. People often don’t know the full line which is “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right”.

The one that annoys me is “The best-laid plans of mice and men.” It’s “best-laid schemes,” people.

No, but he said plenty of things that are almost this quote, and many times.

The Quote Investigator is fantastic for tracking down quotes. Quotes all around the internet are so frequently wrong my panties never get untwisted.

Yes, but: Schurz was playing off the original quote from some 50 years earlier, an after-dinner toast by Stephen Decatur: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” This is much closer in meaning to what people usually think of.

Here’s a quite recent one. Zhou Enlai is often quoted saying something like “It’s too soon to say” when asked about the French Revolution. (Here’s an example of such an attribution). Usually this is put forward as evidence of the longer timeframes considered by Chinese leaders or somesuch.

However the Nixon’s interpreter at the 1972 meeting where the famous quote was uttered has confirmedthat the actual context was a discussion of the French unrest in 1968 rather than the 1789 revolution, making the comment much less striking.

I’d put this down as a “possible” not a “confirmed” debunking. The fact that the original version wasn’t disputed at the time and went unchallenged for forty years makes it difficult for me to accept Freeman’s current claim on just its own weight.

The famous passage from Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade.

The popular version:
…Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die…

The real poem:
…Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die…

Um, big difference. It changes the meaning from “victory or death” to “duty unto death”.

The last lines of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.”

These lines are often quoted by people who imagine themselves to be following their own path and see everyone else as going along with the crowd like mindless sheep because they are not as (smart / brave / cool) as the speaker. But that isn’t what the poem is about at all. In the poem, the author writes about two paths, neither one of which has seen much traffic lately, and on a whim he chooses the one that is very slightly less worn. This takes him to other paths, where he has to make other choices, and in the end he is in a very different place than if he had chosen, on a whim, to take the path that was very slightly more worn. The place isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it is clearly different.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” AKA the Law of Thelema is usually used as some sort of bizarre pseudo-anarchist creed, or some sort of manifesto like YOLO which means “do whatever ya want, brah.” While I won’t deny that it’s not superbly far off, the philisophy it’s part of is really closer to something like Taoism, where you’re supposed to just go with the flow, respect nature, follow your natural path and achieve your destiny. It’s pretty chill really.

In addition, out of context it sounds like a great license for something like out of control exploitation of others, but in context the most grievous violation of the law is infringing upon another’s free will (by murder, exploitation, etc). The full intent of the thing is that you should, first and foremost, follow your own path, but just as importantly not infringe on others abilities to follow their own paths. Say what you will about Crowley and weird New Age religions in general, but the Law of Thelema is actually pretty chill and moral and not an endorsement of reckless abandon like the way most people use it.