There are some quotes you hear repeated nearly every day. Today, you can’t take a walk down the street or follow a page on Instagram without seeing images and stickers of inspirational quotes that have withstood the test of time, along with your share of cheesy and cringeworthy inspirational messages. Quotations are one of the most prominent ways in which famous people and historical figures are remembered. Many famous quotes are legitimate and become the main thing historical figures are known for.
For example, Martin Luther King Jr. will always be famous for his “I Have A Dream” speech, Humphrey Bogart will always be known by, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and Reagan’s presidency will be remembered by, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
In spite of their longevity and fame, it turns out some of these quotes that you know so dearly, were never said in the first place. The thing about these bite-sized quotes is that unless it was published in written work or said in a recorded public speech, it can be rather difficult to prove something was actually said. What this means is that a lot of humanity’s most famous sayings are exaggerations, misattributions, or just plain fabrications.
“Let them eat cake” was not the only famous quote of history that was never said by its alleged source, Marie Antoinette. There are many famous quips, quotations, and idioms that were said by someone entirely different than who they’re attributed to, or in some cases never spoken at all. Here are 10 famous quotes you’ve probably heard many times, but which were never actually said.
10. “Anything That Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong”
Often given as a summation of the infamous “Murphy’s Law” coined by Edward Murphy, this quotation has become world famous. Variations of the phrase have entered the public imagination since then. While the idea of Murphy’s Law is adequately summed up by this quote, Murphy never uttered the phrase himself. The actual quote goes like this: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” This contemporary shortened version of Murphy’s Law comes from an old mountain-climbing adage that says, “Anything that can possibly go wrong, does.”
9. “The Ends Justify The Means”
Niccolo Machiavelli is famous as a political thinker, writer, historian, and military theoretician. All that, and he is still mostly known for being the author of the sixteenth-century text The Prince, which is now considered a classic. In it, he teaches the art of statecraft in what some critics have termed an amoral point of view, but in none of his writings did Machiavelli ever utter the famous phrase that is often used (somewhat incorrectly, as this is a gross oversimplification of The Prince’s message) to sum up his most important work: “the ends justify the means.” Nevertheless, he has become synonymous with the phrase.
8. “Elementary, My Dear Watson”
This is the most iconic phrase for the character of Sherlock Holmes, and the quote most associated with the famous super-detective. It may be troubling to learn for some fans that Sherlock never said it. Now, to be fair, the famous line spoken to Doctor Watson has been said in several television and film adaptations, but it never appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. It gained widespread popularity from the 1929 film adaptation The Return of Sherlock Holmes, and it seems the world collectively decided to forget where it came from. While we’re at it, the original book Holmes is never described as wearing the equally iconic deerstalker hat. That first became famous because of the original illustrations by Sidney Paget for Doyle’s stories. Sorry, do you need a “My whole life is a lie” moment?
7. “Israel Must Be Wiped Off the Map”
Though it seems to have died down since the nuclear agreement in 2015, Iran was portrayed as an evil foreign policy enemy for about ten years. Ask anyone why, and it’s almost guaranteed they’ll mention that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said in a speech that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” That quote, coupled with the country’s nuclear proliferation, was enough to say why the country is evil, insane, or perhaps even warrant comparisons to Hitler. That one quote from 2005 was also one of the main reasons Iran was under crippling Western sanctions. But what’s really crazy is that Ahmadinejad never said that. The quote came from a poor translation in The New York Times. Farsi-speaking journalists were quick to point out the colossal error, but by then it was too late and the quote remains embedded in the popular consciousness to this day.
6. “I Invented The Internet”
For some reason, a lot of people seem to think Al Gore claimed he invented the internet in the early 2000s. Of course, the internet was developed over the course of a few decades by many programmers working for DARPA and the CIA, and the comments made him a laughingstock in the popular imagination. While Gore did contribute to fostering the development of the early internet (winning a Webby Award for it in 2005), he has never claimed to have personally “invented” it. What he actually said was: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.” This awkward phrasing was then blown out of proportion.
5. Pretty Much Everything Ever Attributed to Stalin
For a long time, supposed quotes from Joseph Stalin have circulated in the press, especially since the invention of the internet. Literally all the most famous quotes from the Soviet leader have no source or highly questionable sources; at this point if you’ve heard a quote attributed to Stalin, chances are it’s fake. Let’s run through this one real quick.
“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
By far the most famous Stalin quote, originally published and promoted by The New York Times. Russian historians have no record of the line, and many variants exist. Its original source seems to be a fictional story.
“Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.”
This comes from a work of fiction, the novel Children of the Arbat by Anatoly Rybakov. A fictional version of Stalin said it, and the author said there was no source for the quote and it was purely fictional dialogue.
“The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
Stalin did say something similar to this, but the actual quote is quite different and expresses concern about voter fraud. The real quote says: “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.”
“The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”
The sarcastic quip was attributed to Stalin by Winston Churchill. Though widely quoted and repeated as fact, the quote was actually spoken in 1872 by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck when asked about his anti-Catholic laws.
“Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
There is not a single source, even a fictional one, where Stalin is supposed to have said this. It seems to be a fabrication of the internet.
“We will hang the capitalists with the rope they sell us.”
This quote has also been attributed to Marx. The quote was actually rumored to have been said by Lenin to Grigori Zinoviev, but no primary source exists of that either. Most Soviet experts reject this quote as spurious.
4. “The Definition of Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over and Expecting a Different Result.”
This one has been attributed to a lot of famous thinkers, including Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Mark Twain. Most often, Einstein gets the credit (blame?) for this rather silly quote, but none of them ever said such a thing. If you think about it, the quote doesn’t really even sound like anything that any of them would have said. No consensus exists as to who actually coined the famous phrase, which I’m sure drives psychologists crazy. One early version of it does appear in the 1981 Narcotics Anonymous, which contains the phrase: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” It’s worth noting that this is most certainly not the definition of insanity at all.
3. The Two Most Famous Gandhi Quotes
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Social media is endlessly plastered with images of this quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, though it sounds more like something an insufferable liberal arts student would say. It’s also been popular on bumper stickers for decades, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not an actual Gandhi quote at all.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Politicians absolutely love this one. Nearly every year, politicians post it and it starts recirculating. Just recently, it was posted to Instagram by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Sarah Palin have also posted it. However, the quote is misattributed. It seems to be taken from a 1914 speech by union leader Nicholas Klein. There’s no credible source that Gandhi ever said this, and none of his writings contain the phrase.
2. “Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History”
You’ve doubtlessly seen this one on memes, bumper stickers, and t-shirts, and probably also seen it written as, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It’s most often credit to Marilyn Monroe, but others attribute it to Eleanor Roosevelt or even Anne Boleyn. For some reason, Marilyn Monroe is claimed to have said a lot of random phrases that were spoken by other people. The quote actually comes from a 1976 essay published in the academic journal American Quarterly by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Seeing that the quote had made its way into popular culture in a huge way, often credited incorrectly and used without her permission, Ulrich wrote a book with the same title in 2007.
1. “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”
Yep, that’s right – despite its popularity among history teachers, the internet’s most famous quote was never uttered or written by its supposed source, Voltaire. Here’s an idea: the next time someone says this quote, ask which book it’s from or what the exact context was, and probably won’t have an answer. It originally appeared in a book of essays called Friends of Voltaire about Voltaire’s philosophy and thought. In the book, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the sentence which summed up everything he stood for. This resulted in the quote being falsely attributed to Voltaire himself.