They are so famous that you can recite them from memory. They are repeated so often that they are now part of our cultural currency.
And they are dead wrong.
Many legendary quotes from our past have been misunderstood, taken out of context, or worse yet, never spoken.
What historical heresy is this, you ask? Consider the evidence.
“The British are coming! “- Paul Revere
A dramatic line from a brave man. And he didn’t say it.
What Revere really shouted on that fateful night in April 1775 was, “The regulars are coming!” “
Historians do not know how the “Regulars” became “British” in our collective memory. It’s not from Longfellow’s famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, (“Hear my children and you will hear…”) It seems to have sprouted on its own.
“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandi
If you’re trained early in high school, you’ll probably hear a pimply-faced teenager recite this old chestnut. It is true that it is inspiring. It is also incorrect.
Gandhi actually said, “Just as a man changes his nature, so does the attitude of the world towards him. We don’t have to wait to see what others are doing. Deep words, although difficult to paste on a bumper sticker.
“The good guys finish last.” – Léo Durocher
When asked about a rival baseball team, the famous Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants manager actually said, “They are cool guys. They will finish last.
“Leo the Lip” didn’t make a sweeping generalization on Nice Guys. He was commenting on a specific group which turned out to be enjoyable. And doomed to failure too. And the story kind of got it wrong.
“We are not amused!” – Queen Victoria
Okay, this one is true. But not as you think.
A servant once told a racy story in the presence of a few ladies, including Her Britannic Majesty. And Victoria replied, “We weren’t having fun!”
But she was not using the royal “we” (called “majestic plural” by linguists) to refer strictly to herself; she used the regular plural “we”, which meant that she and the other women didn’t appreciate the tale of debauchery. The quote was quickly circulated as supposed proof of Victoria’s prudish nature. She explained the backstory to a granddaughter shortly before her death in 1901.
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. “- Mark Twain
Speaking of the dead, this is one of the most quoted hilarious lines from the comedian. And here’s the fun part: it didn’t say it, nor any of its many variations.
A reporter really asked him about his condition and Twain really replied, “The news of my death is an exaggeration. That’s all.
And speaking of Twain …
“The only two certainties in life are death and taxes. “- Mark Twain
Nothing like it ever came out of Twain’s mouth or pen. Christopher Bullock said in 1716: “It is impossible to be sure of anything other than death and taxes”. Edward Ward echoed this in 1724: “Death and taxes, they are certain. The line sounded like something Twain would say, and for a lot of people in his day, that was good enough.
“There is a sucker born every minute. “- PT Barnum
Barnum was a master of the show, and he wasn’t above pulling a fast on paying customers. Yet unlike most hoaxes and hucksters, there was no malicious intent in his heart. People liked to participate in the joke. They understood he winked at them when he flaunted his boyfriend, and they loved him for it.
So where does “a miller born every minute” come from? He was born to a rival showman who was jealous of Barnum’s financial success,
“Elementary my dear Watson.” – Sherlock Holmes
This is the signature line of the head detective. But search every page of every Sherlock Holmes story and novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and you won’t find it. Not even once. He appeared in Basil Rathbone’s old “Sherlock” movies in Hollywood.
“Let them eat cake!” – Marie Antionette
Marie was the spoiled brat of Versailles, and everyone knows her days on the throne ended with a date with Madame Guillotine. But the Queen of France is being criticized for this quote because she did not say it. (Considering her stupid nature, she probably didn’t even think about it.)
So, what gives? Jean-Jacques Rosseau wrote: “I remembered a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche.’ And it spread from there.
” I can not lie. It was I who cut down the cherry tree. – George Washington
Reverend Mason “Parson” Weems wrote the first biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. He liked to improve on a good thing by creating episodes from scratch to build strengths of character. While this is good for a novelist, it is inexcusable for a biographer, and doubly so for a man of the stuff. (Do you remember the Ninth Commandment? “You shall not bear false witness.”)
When Weems’ story came out in the early 1800s, George probably looked up from the sky and asked, “What a lie? What cherry tree? Because neither has happened.
The bottom line: When the veracity of a famous phrase is called into question, always remember another famous quote, an old Russian proverb that President Ronald Reagan loved to repeat: “Trust, but verify.”