What false quotes tell us about ourselves

I’m a huge fan of quotations. When writing an essay or addressing a group, it’s lovely to be able to pull out a couple of sentences by someone famous that neatly summarize the situation. The trouble is a lot of the well known quotations that routinely get slapped on coffee mugs and fridge magnets are wrong. Well, perhaps wrong is not the right word — someone must have said that clever line, after all — but rarely was it uttered so succinctly by Churchill, Lincoln or Ghandi. This practice of is mis-attributed quotes is so widespread that I’ve stopped using quotes unless I can find the primary source.

When I was researching my piece on Doing Business the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, I came lots of quotes like this one:




It’s a great quote, right? “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” It sounds like a thing Roosevelt might have said in her book of sage advice, You Learn By Living. She might have said it, but she never did. Quote Investigator, a website run by Dr. Garson O’Toole, tracks down the origins of these rogue quotes, including the teabag one, in a way that is absolutely fascinating. The first records indicated that the quote was an Irish proverb dating from around 1860. There is a record of a reader of the Los Angeles Times sending that quote to the paper in 1961. Both Dorothy Elston and Phyllis Schlafly used the quote in political speeches in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the quote began to be attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt and this notion was popularized when Hilary Rodham Clinton reportedly started to use it as an example of Roosevelt’s wise words.

Most quotes seem to be misattributed through a similar form of “broken telephone” over time but there are some general patterns in how these misquotes evolve that reveal something about human behaviour.

We need our heroes to be wise

One of my favourite quotes is “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” I’ve seen it attributed to Marilyn Monroe, May West, and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was really written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Now Laurel is not exactly a slouch and is, I hope, the most famous person in her neighbourhood. Among her list of accomplishments are she is a Harvard professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author of A Midwife’s Tale. But apparently she’s not quite enough of a household name to be featured on a fridge magnet (the ultimate high-water mark!) There is some sort of innate desire to believe that the people we elevate to fame are capable of speaking wise, universal truths. Heaven knows what things history will attribute to Kim Kardashian. Often we think of famous people as wiser than they are and this can translate to the boardroom where we tend to lend more weight to the words of the senior people at the table.

We need our heroes to be perfect

Any gift shop worth its salt will have a little motivational plaque or tote bag featuring Gandhi’s  inspirational quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Unfortunately, Gandhi never said this. Elephant Journal tracked down the origins of this misquote.  Apparently, Ghandi said something similar to the quote, but rather less bumper-sticker friendly: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. 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.” We want our heroes to be perfect and when they are not perfect enough, we just edit them into the form we want (this is the same phenomenon that let guys like Bill Cosby get away with acting badly for years, I suspect.) It’s kind of depressing that the world does not consider Gandhi to be Gandhi enough. It creates a lot of pressure for the rest of us!

In some cases, the great figure being quoted did not say the great thing at all. Megan McArdle tracked down the origins of a Martin Luther King Jr. quote for her piece in The Atlantic. McArdle explained why we might want to put other people’s words in the mouths of our recognized heroes: “We become invested in these quotes because they say something important about us–and they let us feel that those emotions were shared by great figures in history.” We need to feel part of something great and if it’s not quite great enough, we embellish.

We needed our heroes to be men

For a long time in our history, women were not believed to be capable of things like voting, running for office, running a company, or saying great things. So, for a long time men got a lot of quote credit. Maseena Zielger wrote a fascinating piece for Forbes titled, 7 Famous Quotes You Definitely Didn’t Know Were From Women. Take Thomas Edison’s “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Edison never said it: an 1890s academic named Kate Sanborn did.  Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” The credit goes to poet Muriel Strode. And “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was not Voltaire, but Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Thankfully, we are at a stage now where women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Dorothy Parker, May West, Virginia Woolf, and Maya Angelou are oft quoted. Which leads to the next problem…

Once you say a few things well, people will give you credit for more.

Mark Twain is both one of the most quoted and wrongfully quoted people on the planet. “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes” was not said by Mark Twain nor was “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Mental Floss has tracked down a list of 10 Things Mark Twain Didn’t Really Say and Quote Investigator lists many more. Mark Twain said a lot of brilliant things and, because he did, we are willing to believe he said every brilliant thing out there. In recruiting we used to call this the halo effect and it’s one of those thinking traps that can make give credit undeservedly. In business, it’s useful to know if you are dealing with a Mark Twain – a brilliant person who got a lot of credit he did not deserve – or a Dorothy Parker – a brilliant person who did not receive as much credit as she was due (read this Mental Floss piece to see how very quotable she was.)







  1. My avatar never said: “you dirty rat” but rather was made famous by comedian Frank Gorshin with his Cagney impression so perfect it became iconic and that line always assumed to have come from a Cagney movie.

  2. Funny. I was thinking about this the other day. I love a good quotation as well as the next gal and the internet makes cutting and pasting sooo easy. My favourite philosopher king, after Yosemite Sam, has to be the great Yogi Berra. Perhaps the next one will be you!

Comments are closed.