You think you know a saying. You’ve heard it over and over (and over), so you never questioned it. Maybe you should. It turns out that many quotes we all know by heart are incorrect. Sometimes they’re a word or two off, and sometimes they are way different.
Here’s a list of ten quotations often misquoted.
- “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
What Gandhi actually said was “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.” The real quote is quite different from the popular version. It’s saying that personal and social change happen together, not that personal change alone is enough.
- “Nice guys finish last.”
This saying has been attributed to Leo Durocher, the baseball hall of famer also known as Leo the Lip. What he really said, when referring to an opposing team, was “All nice guys. They’ll finish last.” It’s not quite as catchy, but it still gets the point across.
- “Curiosity killed the cat.”
The earliest known printed reference of this phrase dates to 1912 as part of a proverb printed in The Titusville Herald newspaper. It reads: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.” This time, the real quotation differs drastically from the well-known version. The cat doesn’t stay dead; he comes back to life once he’s satisfied (from eating ghost mice, perhaps).
- “The end justifies the means.”
Do you think Niccolo Machiavelli said this? Most people do. However, it’s nowhere to be found in The Prince. The closest to this the Italian philosopher and writer got was “One must consider the final result,” which doesn’t really have the same ring to it.
- “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
All those high school social studies teachers have it wrong. The true quote is “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s attributed to Lord John Dalberg-Acton, a famous British historian from the nineteenth century.
- “My country, right or wrong.”
This is only the first part of what the German revolutionary and American statesman, Carl Shurz, said in 1872. The full quote is “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” The correct version has the opposite idea of the slogan nationalists promote.
- “The British are coming!”
Nope. Paul Revere never said this on his famous horse ride. It’s believed that what he did say was “The regulars are out.” “Regulars” was what the rebels called British soldiers.
- “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
While the premise of this quote may be true, it’s not what the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century playwright, William Congreve, wrote. The real line from his 1697 play, The Mourning Bride, goes like this: “Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.”
- “Houston, we have a problem.”
This is close. But Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell really said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
- “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Similarly, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong swore he said, “One small step for a man.” It’s just that people didn’t hear it on the transmission. Without it, the quote essentially says, “one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind.”
Does this mean you can’t use these sayings any longer? Not necessarily. But it may be prudent to note they’re variations of the true quotations. Plus, knowing the difference will make you look smart.
Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of book editing, author coaching, and social media packages.
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