Why Nearly Every Famous Quote Is Wrong


Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” She said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” which actually means, “Let them eat brioche.” No one in Casablanca ever says, “Play it again, Sam.” Ingrid Bergman actually says, “Play it, Sam” – but that seems less lyrical, less romantic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” In fact, Sherlock Holmes never said anything even close to this until the 1929 film The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but by that time, he was simply uttering what Holmes fans had long been misquoting. In Wall Street, Gordon Gekko never said, “Greed is good.” He really said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” —  but that sounds labored and unnecessarily wordy. Patrick Henry didn’t say, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” That was misquoted by his biographer William Wirt, who wanted to add a bit of embellishment, a bit of zip. And Winston Churchill, oh Churchill, well let’s just say he was famous for adapting other people’s turns of phrase.

But is this even a big deal? Do misquotes (or stealing quotes) actually change anything? Do they devalue what was said – what was meant? Well, not really. But then that begs the question: why do we love quotations at all?

Well, firstly, quotes hold precise, definite truths that we can quickly uncover. They don’t require the hassle of reading a book, watching a film, or listening to a whole speech. There is, after all, great pleasure to gaining wisdom without work. We love quotations because they are phrased just right so as to be both memorable and to make us really feel something. The structure of a successful quote is as much a syntactical triumph as it is a visceral victory.

But why we really love quotes is because they are shortcuts. We could read all of Crime and Punishment – or, we could excerpt one of Dostoevsky’s most insightful sentences to pretty much sum it all up: “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” We could watch Steve Jobs’ twenty-two-minute Stanford commencement speech, or we could simply hold on to the last line, a line that seems to encapsulates Jobs’ entire ethos of hard-work and minimalism: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

Quotes though are elementary to a fault. They are gateways to nuanced truths, but they are not the truths themselves. If you think that Crime and Punishment can really be boiled down to a single quote, you are missing out on so much philosophy and wisdom – not to mention a compelling story. Without a serious exploration of the quotes we love, they can be rendered meaningless, spineless and perpetually malleable. Sooner or later, you’ll realize that it’s not so much wisdom you’re gleaning from quotes – it’s empty lyricism.

Given the right context though, quotes really can hold significance. They can inspire one to fight or to study or to travel; or they can reveal a fault, be it moral or in one’s perception of the world. Sometimes the powerfulness of quotes is contingent upon who said them. If a random stranger says something trite like, “Where there is love, there is life” chances are that no one will remember, no one will care. But, once you realize that it was Mahatma Gandhi who said this, then the quote becomes important, entered into the memory bank to be saved for a rainy day.

By quoting someone you are also making a statement about yourself – you are aligning yourself with their values. Those who quote Hemingway are paradigmatically different from those who quote Fitzgerald. Those who quote Twain’s travel observations might think it crass to also quote Anthony Bourdain’s. Sometimes though, a quote is so well-constructed that it doesn’t matter who said it — there’s enough apparent wisdom packed in it that it continues to thrive.

When it comes down to it, the only reason a quote is a quote is because it has been quoted before. Tautological? Perhaps. But quotes hold authority, and they hold secrets as well. When you are lonely, you might be wise to think of Henry Rollins’ quote, “Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.” For rainy days, I like to think to the last line of The Great Gatsby, the same quote engraved on Fitzgerald’s tombstone in Maryland: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” It is cliché at this point, but my brain will always hold on to this quote, saving it for when I need to remember that life can only move forward and that even after tragedy, I must continue on.

Sure, quotes are shortcuts, and they can be a bit cheap compared to the whole from which they came. Yet, they are vital to understanding a variety of perspectives, to holding on to what we think is meaningful. A quote may never be able to replace an entire work, but a wonderful turn of phrase isn’t necessarily empty. We imbue it with our own meaning, our own sentiments.

While quotes are inherently unstable — they are constantly being changed, their originality always in question — this is part of their charm, for they are tiny, personal gems we can carry around in our pockets, pulling them out when we need to feel a certain way. We love quotes for the very reason we should hate them: they can be modified, ripped from their original meaning. In doing so, we can ascribe our own meaning, so that when we do have to pull them out of our pocket during particularly trying times, misquote or not, they are already shimmering, matched perfectly to our needs.

image – oh-paris