Famous misquotes (or things they never said)

Published 11:26 am Thursday, May 25, 2017

We like to throw around famous quotes all the time. Some from movies or books, others from celebrities and other public figures.

The problem is that these quotes aren’t always accurate. One person hears it incorrectly or can’t remember it exactly, tells their friends the inaccurate quote anyway, and then the wrong version gets spread around. Either that or a different person gets credited somewhere along the way.

It happens all the time. But it’s really interesting to see which ones our society has gotten wrong for years.

Some of the misquotes are very simple. The Evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White is often quoted saying “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” but in the movie, what she actually said was “Magic mirror on the wall…” No repetition here.

Similarly, the witches’ spell from Shakespeare’s Macbeth isn’t “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” like some people believe. There is still some bubbling but only if you read the full correct version: “double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Even Forrest Gump isn’t always correctly quoted. It’s a small mistake but “life is like a box of chocolates” is actually past tense in the movie. Gump says in his usual slow Southern drawl, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates.”

Occasionally misquotes spread because they’re just a simpler version of the original. Another Shakespeare example comes from the play, Hamlet: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well.”

The full text from the play is “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!”

I can understand someone just summarizing all that with a simple “I knew him well.”

There are also a lot of times where famous quotes are actually correct, but they’re attributed to the wrong person.

Marilyn Monroe never said “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It was actually Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who later used her viral quote as the title to one of her books.

Actress and dancer Ginger Rogers never uttered her famous “backwards and in heels” quote. That came from a comic strip by Bob Thaves, and the original line was “Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did… backwards and in high heels.”

Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But there’s no evidence he ever said that himself.

George Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” was, ironically, a lie itself that his biographer made up. That story about the cherry tree never happened, and presumably Washington still told lies on occasion.

The strangest one I’ve seen is actually a misattributed misquote. Marie Antoinette didn’t say “Let them eat cake!” about hungry peasants in France. It was actually Jean-Jacques Rousseau, telling the story of something he’d once heard a nameless princess say, and a more accurate translation is “Let them eat brioche!”

I can see where the French pastry doesn’t have as much of a ring to it. The cake version is much more memorable.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s probably a good idea to check your sources if you want to quote a famous line or a famous person. Memories aren’t very reliable and it’s usually better to get it right the first time.

But then again, sometimes a quote is just a quote. Or in the words of Sigmund Freud: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Or, at least, it would be if Freud had actually said that.

Holly Taylor is a staff writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or by phone at 252-332-7206.