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Ten Extremely Famous Quotes You’ve Been Getting All Wrong

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

We all love to quote things to each other: axioms, proverbs, famous politician and celebrity quotes, iconic statements, and remarks from history. Heck, even funny lines we see on television shows and viral memes we watch on social media. Quoting other people’s clever and creative remarks has been going on throughout human history for as long as people have been making clever and creative remarks. But with all that quoting, there are bound to be some messed-up and mistaken quotes floating around out there!

That’s what this list is about. Today, we’ll take a fascinating journey through ten very famous quotes that are very often mistakenly quoted. Whether taken out of context, only half-shared in a way that totally changes their original meaning, or just outright misattributed or misremembered altogether, these ten quotes are extremely well-known… and extremely wrong. Oops! So let’s set the record straight once and for all!

Related: 10 Quotes From Experts Who Were Proved Wrong

10 Money, Money, Money

MONEY = The Root of ALL Evil?

You’ve undoubtedly heard the quote, “Money is the root of all evil.” But that’s not actually the entire quote as it originally stood—in the Bible, no less. See, people like to drop that quote on you when it comes to the importance of money. But the full quote misses three key words that add a good bit of context right up front. It actually goes: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” See how that changes the tone just a little bit?

Quoting from the Bible in the first book of Timothy (chapter six, verse ten), the wording goes: “For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.” And other translations of the Bible have the same quote, of course, but worded slightly differently.

But again, the key context here is “the love of money” and not simply money itself. Money is, of course, a means to an end. You need money to live a comfortable life, buy a safe home, a reliable car, and everything in the modern age. So, to that end, money is a tool you should use to achieve positive ends and help you live the life you want. It’s not categorically “evil” in all senses just because it exists.

But there’s a line to cross there, too. When you go from earning money to live a better life to becoming obsessive over hoarding as much money as possible, well, you’ve crossed into “evil” territory. And now you know the difference—and the full quote that infamously warns about it![1]

9 Elementary, My Dear!

The Truth About “Elementary, My Dear Watson”

To hear casual fans of Sherlock Holmes tell it, you’d think Sherlock said, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” right from the very start. After all, it’s one of the most quoted lines from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. But it’s completely wrong! Sherlock Holmes never said that in any original Conan Doyle tale!

Despite that, the quote has been used frequently in movies throughout the years. And it has been so misattributed that it was even placed (mistakenly!) in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in both 1937 and 1948. That’s a big bungle!

In the original Conan Doyle, Holmes’s iconic quote is actually broken up into two separate pieces and set out differently. It starts with Holmes saying this to Watson: “I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson. When your round is a short one, you walk, and when it is a long one, you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom.”

And then, after Watson cries out “Excellent,” the second part of the Holmes quote rears its head: “Elementary. It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader.”

It’s a bit of text to parse through, but clearly, that mix-up is where the mistake occurred: Holmes does indeed say “my dear Watson” and criest out “elementary.” And they come in quick succession across a single conversation! But they don’t come packed together in one quotable quote. But for whatever reason, the quote was transcribed this way into all of our brains, and it has stuck incorrectly in the public consciousness like this.[2]

8 Okay, Houston…

Apollo 13: ‘Houston, We’ve Had a Problem’

The iconic 1995 film Apollo 13 may have popularized the quote, “Houston, we have a problem,” but that memorable movie line is actually incorrect. Yes, we know, it pains us to say that anything Tom Hanks is involved in wouldn’t be 100% above board, but Hanks and his co-stars in that blockbuster film actually got the scene wrong—but only very slightly.

Instead of “Houston, we have a problem,” the actual line comes in the past tense: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” On April 14, 1970, an explosion occurred on board the Apollo 13 spacecraft as it approached the Moon. The command module pilot, Jack Swigert, noted the explosion immediately and radioed into NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

He used these exact words: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The radio operators in Houston didn’t hear him correctly when he first said it, though, and they asked him to repeat it. Speaking from down in Texas, Mission Control capsule communicator Jack R. Lousma asked for Swigert to speak again. At that point, mission commander Jim Lovell jumped in from his place on the spacecraft, confirming the exact same words with the exact same tense: “Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

It’s a very minor misquotation, of course, to go from “we’ve had a problem” to “we have a problem.” But it’s a big deal in how the movie is structured. When you see “Houston, we have a problem” on the big screen, you get to watch Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Pullman desperately trying to figure out what happened in real time. It makes your heart pound!

In the actual space launch, Swigert and Lovell were no less alarmed or worried, but they had to work backward through a technical checklist to figure out what went wrong after the actual problem occurred. And so the past tense of reality with “we’ve had a problem” becomes the present tense terror of the silver screen with “we have a problem.”[3]

7 No Cake for You!

DEMYSTIFIED: Did Marie-Antoinette really say “Let them eat cake”? | Encyclopaedia Britannica

One of the most famous quotes in all of human history is the line ascribed to Marie-Antoinette: “Let them eat cake.” As the story goes, when hearing that French peasants had no bread to eat and were going hungry, Marie-Antoinette supposedly said, “Let them eat cake,” proving how out of touch the royal class was to the sufferings of their subjects in the 18th century.

However, there’s just one little problem with it. Marie-Antoinette almost certainly didn’t say that. In fact, when the quote was first written down and recorded for history, she was a very young child who hadn’t even been to France yet and certainly wouldn’t have been able to think about the implications of such a statement on hunger and poverty!

Historians who did the smallest amount of digging found the quote listed and discussed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written in 1765. That was published nearly three decades before the French Revolution. And when it was published, Marie-Antoinette was only nine years old—and had never even been to France yet! So it’s pretty unlikely that she said it, right?

But it gets even deeper from there! In 1843, a French writer named Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr reported that he found the quote in a separate book that was published five years before Rousseau’s work in 1760. If that’s true, Marie-Antoinette would have been just five years old at the time of that publication, and she certainly wouldn’t have said the infamous cake quip.

Unfortunately for Rousseau, Karr, and every other writer and historian who has been trying to debunk this thing for decades, the cake comment has been stuck to Marie-Antoinette even though it almost certainly wasn’t her who said it. Ah, well. History can be quite a fickle mistress, can’t it?[4]

6 Ends and Means

What “Machiavellian” really means – Pazit Cahlon and Alex Gendler

Niccolò Machiavelli never said, “The ends justify the means,” even though that famous quote is very often attributed to him. Of course, he was a prolific thinker—and a prolific writer—so there is no shortage of quotes you can rightly and correctly attribute to the Italian philosopher and social theorist. But “the ends justify the means” is not one of them.

That quote, as it stands, is not found in any of his works, nor is a translation into English enough of a parallel to likely give that quote to him. Historians and philosophers today instead believe the Roman poet Ovid ought to be the one credited with “the ends justify the means.” But for whatever reason, Machiavelli unfairly gets all the mistaken credit.

Now, Machiavelli wrote some things that were somewhat similar to the quote. In Discourses, one passage goes: “For although the act condemns the doer, the end may justify him….” And in his famous work The Prince, he goes on to write, “Let a prince have the credit [as] the means will always be considered honest… because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it.”

From those quotes, it is perhaps easy to see how his writing has been very liberally (and very incorrectly) reframed over the centuries to get down to the pithy “the ends justify the means” commentary we have today. However, for Machiavelli, the reality of ends and means wasn’t as simple as that justification though. As he notes in his writing, sometimes the ends may indeed justify the means—but not always.

For him, thinking of ends when it came to the means to get there was more of a warning not to be pious in political dealings rather than an outright suggestion that there would be no consequences should one cast aside virtue and honor. That’s a big difference and one that philosophers have hotly debated ever since. But once and for all, let’s take that mistaken Machiavelli quote off the board, shall we?[5]

5 Taste That Pudding

The Proof Is In the Pudding Meaning | Idioms In English

We’ve all heard the very common axiom, “The proof is in the pudding.” But did you know that isn’t actually the correct quote? Okay, if you’re reading this list and you’ve made it this far down the list, you probably already know that the quote is going to be corrected shortly. So, let’s not insult your intelligence with that question and just get on with it!

Jokes aside, “the proof is in the pudding” is the evolution of an old proverb that started out with a very important and different distinction. The full old proverb goes something like this: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In the end, it means the same thing as it does in our modern misremembrance of how it goes. That is, the value of the thing in question (the “pudding” in this case) must only be judged on direct, actual experience with it rather than in theory or appearance.

It might be a good idea in your head, but if the “pudding” in your brain comes out flat as a project or product or whatever else, well, that proves the “pudding” wasn’t any good to begin with. Coincidentally, that proverb actually got its start with literal pudding. Centuries ago, people used it to quite literally explain how they had to try out the food they made to know if it was worth eating. Recently, society has reorganized that to a more metaphorical usage, but the ultimate meaning is all the same. Still, it’s important to share the actual quote so that you can use it correctly![6]

4 Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Winston Churchill “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat”

The quote “blood, sweat, and tears” is one of the most common phrases used by people for nearly a full century now—and in that exact order, too. But if you ask many people about the quote, they either don’t know where it’s from, or they almost always say it came from a famous speech by Winston Churchill during the beginning of World War II. That’s actually not correct, though.

Even though “blood, sweat, and tears” have been misattributed to Churchill to the point where they likely always will be, his actual words were slightly different. The date was May 10, 1940, and the occasion was Churchill’s rise to officially become the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. Upon his ascension during the political turnover, he gave a speech to the House of Commons while asking them for a vote of confidence in his new government.

Labour backed him, but the Conservatives were a bit more lukewarm; they had remained steadfast in their support of Neville Chamberlain. Of course, Churchill eventually took power and carried Britain through the awful war years. But on that day, he was moved to give his speech to the House of Commons, where the wrongly credited “blood, sweat, and tears” came up.

In reality, during the speech warning of the long years of war ahead, Churchill said: “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.” And that’s how history actually happened—not “blood, sweat, and tears,” but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” A minor difference, perhaps, but a major change from the quote we all know so well.

Chillingly, as Churchill ascended to the role of Prime Minister and was accepted by the UK’s shell-shocked, war-torn government, he also famously made a very foreboding comment warning of the long war years to come: “Poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.”

Sadly, that ended up being all too true for the UK and its Allies in their years-long fight to defeat Nazi Germany.[7]

3 Survival of the Fittest

The Philosophy Of Herbert Spencer

The term “survival of the fittest” is very often attributed to Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking theory of evolution. But he did not coin it, and for a long time, he did not even use it in any of his writing! Granted, it has everything to do with Darwinian evolutionary theory.

As you no doubt know, “survival of the fittest” occurs when the fittest iterations of a thing—be they humans, animals, plants, or otherwise—have the greatest chance and likelihood of successfully breeding to produce future generations. The “fittest” genes generally survive in the long run because they were the hardiest ones that stuck it out when the proverbial going got tough. Makes sense, right?

Well, it wasn’t Darwin. Interestingly enough, another biologist, Herbert Spencer, came up with that phrase. He got to it right after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In 1864, Spencer published Principles of Biology. In it, he used Darwin’s evolutionary claims to draw parallels between his own economic theories and natural selection.

Now, here’s the thing: Herbert Spencer had some of what we might call, um, interesting theories about race in his day. And you’ll see what we mean when you read the full quote of his that coins the term and harkens back to Darwin’s work: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection,’ or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” Yeah…

Interestingly, economic racism aside, Darwin really liked the phrase “survival of the fittest” as it applied to natural life. Another scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Darwin and suggested he use Spencer’s phrase in his own work to perfectly encapsulate what he meant by “natural selection.”

Darwin agreed and first used “survival of the fittest” in his 1868 publication The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Then, in 1869, he introduced the phrase again in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species.[8]

2 Great Minds…

Surely, you’ve heard the phrase, “Great minds think alike.” Whenever two people come to the same conclusion about the same thing at the same time, they often chuckle about it, and somebody will utter the saying. “Great minds think alike,” you’ll say as you shrug, laugh, and go on about your day.

But would you still utter that phrase if you knew the second half of the quotation? That’s right! As it turns out, “great minds think alike” is only half the story when it comes to this very popular quote. The full read-out goes a little something like this: “Great minds think alike, but fools seldom differ.”

That doesn’t seem so fun and sweet now, does it? Suddenly, we feel like fools! But then again, maybe that was the point. For what it’s worth, the (full) quote began appearing in written documentation at the beginning of the 17th century. Some historians believe it dates specifically to a 1618 book, in which its Old English equivalent of “good wits doe jumpe” was first used.

Undoubtedly, though, the quote, exactly as we know it today, was first published in a work in 1816. That year, Carl Theodor von Unlanski published his biography The Woful History of the Unfortunate Eudoxia, which included the “great minds” quote.[9]

1 Help Yourself!

Did You Know that “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” Isn’t in the Bible?

The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is so popular, and it has been so common for such a long time that religious pollsters consistently find that people believe it is written in the Bible. But it isn’t anywhere in the Good Book at all! In fact, so many people mistakenly think it’s a biblical quote that it is often cited as the single most incorrectly attributed phony Bible verse ever. That really says something!

But that’s not even the only misattribution that the quote suffers from! Throughout history, people have also incorrectly cited it as being a quote first penned by Ben Franklin in his 1757 publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac. But that’s not correct, either. The real quote goes back almost a century before that!

The first verifiable use of “God helps those who help themselves” came in Algernon Sydney’s 1698 article “Discourses Concerning Government.” Doesn’t that sound like an absolutely fascinating read? It must have been a page-turner, for sure. But jokes aside, Sydney came up with the saying. Or, if he stole it from somebody else before him, historians have yet to figure out who that original source might be.

Funny enough, one might argue that the saying is decidedly not biblical at all, even if it mentions God. After all, the Bible has several very well-known passages in which God helps the helpless—and not those who help themselves at all!

Take Isaiah 25:4, for example, which declares: “Because thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress: a refuge from the whirlwind, a shadow from the heat. For the blast of the mighty is like a whirlwind beating against a wall.”Or what about Romans 5:6, which notes: ” For why did Christ, when as yet we were weak, according to the time, die for the ungodly?” And on and on it goes![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen