The Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS): Our Democratic Poetry

by Corey Robin on May 6, 2013

Last night, I posted on my blog this post about statements that have been falsely attributed to some famous person. I got some terrific responses, on the blog, FB, and Twitter, and now a magazine wants me to develop it into a longer essay. So I thought I’d post it here in the hopes of crowd-sourcing the essay. Do you have any experiences with the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS)? Any more elaborate or extended thoughts?

• • • • •

Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.

I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig deep enough, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone has to have said it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.

I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.

Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this. (See update below.)

At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look up the citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of).  So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again—and, as always, too late—that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).

But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.

The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.


1. Immediately following my posting last night, several people swore up and down that that liberal at 20, conservative at 30, quote was made by a famous person: Guizot. Smiling and sighing, I asked them to find me the original. They came up with all sorts of weblinks, but not a one from a text by Guizot. Then they too tumbled down the rabbit hole of the WAS.

2. So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had gotten that correct in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I then forgot that Santayana had in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said only a version of it. It’s almost like a WAS in reverse!

3. On my blog, polymath translator Art Goldhammer has this to say.

My favorite WAS is attributed to Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good.” This has been repeated by at least 3 US presidents. The New York Times once called me to locate the source, and I was able to tell them that Laurence Guellec has demonstrated that Tocqueville never said this. There are any number of other statements wrongly attributed to Tocqueville, many having to do with the “public choice theoryish” allegation that democracy ends in bribing the people with the people’s own money. He never said that either, although less crude versions of the idea are implicit in some of his comments.

4. This morning Henry Farrell emailed me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:


With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.

5. On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:


It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.

Sprezzatura!  Sprezzatura!  Cue Lee Siegel!



Anderson 05.06.13 at 3:18 pm

Voltaire, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall.


between4walls 05.06.13 at 3:25 pm

William the Silent, “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere.”

No one can find an actual source for this.,_ni_de_r%C3%A9ussir_pour_pers%C3%A9v%C3%A9rer


LizardBreath 05.06.13 at 3:29 pm

There’s a nasty Orwell WAS that got a lot of play in the early days of the Iraq war: the version ‘quoted’ was something like “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” with the implication that Orwell would have thought anyone who didn’t support the war was unrealistic.

It’s pretty close to a real Orwell quote from his essay on Kipling, except that in context, the actual quote is about the exploitation of developing countries rather than about cheerleading for military conquest:

But because he identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. The middle-class Left hate him for this quite as much as for his cruelty and vulgarity. All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.


nnyhav 05.06.13 at 3:32 pm

Newly relevant to crowdsourcing & Big Data:
“Quantity has a quality all its own.”
not Stalin nor Lenin but historian David Glantz (so at least ontopic)


Barry 05.06.13 at 3:37 pm

Lizardbreath: “There’s a nasty Orwell WAS that got a lot of play in the early days of the Iraq war: the version ‘quoted’ was something like “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” with the implication that Orwell would have thought anyone who didn’t support the war was unrealistic. ”

In addition, these people didn’t understand that there’s a difference between ‘rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,’ and ‘rough men stand ready to do violence’. By their standards, people in N. Korea should be sleeping quite soundly.


hardindr 05.06.13 at 3:45 pm

Wikiquote says that a variation on the Churchill quote can be attributed to Clemenceau:


nnyhav 05.06.13 at 3:47 pm

Churchill gets credit for “Dear Sir, I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your letter before me. Very soon it will be behind me.” but it’s adapted from


Rich Puchalsky 05.06.13 at 3:48 pm

I’m actually most annoyed not by the WAS, but by the wrongly polished-up statement.

“If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution” is what people smugly imagine Emma Goldman saying to some too-serious vanguard cadre, and by extension, anyone who they imagine is too stuffy. She said something like it, but the sentence as written above was created by a T-shirt designer. And she actually said whatever she said to a “young boy”.

“At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everyboy’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world–prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.


Eric Thomas Weber 05.06.13 at 3:50 pm

I’ve got a few WAS’s for you:

“I’m a firm believer in luck, and the harder I work, the luckier I get.” I’ve heard this attributed to Jefferson and Franklin, but have not found a place where they’ve said it.

Here’s another odd one. It’s believed to be quite likely something that William Faulkner often said, according to Faulkner scholars I know: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” It’s nowhere to be found in his writings.

Then, there was the famous oval office rug, which quoted MLK for the beautiful line about justice: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He did say it, but his version here is really an embellishment on a line said by an earlier. Here’s a somewhat harsh criticism about that in the Washington Post:

I hope this helps. Good luck with your article.

Eric Weber
On Twitter @erictweber


Tim Worstall 05.06.13 at 3:54 pm

One corollary that I’ve noted. Who the WAS gets attributed to changes across societies.

Many English ones end up with Churchill. Or perhaps Disraeli (for the statistics and damned lies one) where over the pond they might go to Churchill, or for some others, to Twain (the lies and statistics one for example).

If you’ve got access to English English and American English collections of sayings (perhaps not the academically rigorous ones that actually check these things, but the popular ones) there might be a para or three in that. Who, culturally, is famous enough in the different cultures for these sayings to be attributed to?


BJN 05.06.13 at 4:04 pm

Vonnegut has a ton, but the one I find interesting is where our version in the collective memory seems to have done him one better. What you always hear is “Be careful who you pretend to be because you are who you pretend to be.” The actual quote is the other way around: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I greatly prefer the former. Seems like we underwent some sort of unconscious crowd-sourced editing on that one.


Sandwichman 05.06.13 at 4:05 pm

Well, as Mark Twain Josh Billings Kin Hubbard always used to say, “It ain’t what a person doesn’t know that hurts them. It’s what they know that just ain’t so.”“Taint what a man don’t know that hurts him; it’s what he knows that just ain’t so.”

Or something to that effect.


Hector_St_Clare 05.06.13 at 4:05 pm

Who was it who said, “History is to nationalism what the human body is to pornography”?

I always thought it was Eric Hobsbawm (and I love the quotation) but then someone recently told me it was actually Andrea Dworkin.


Helmut Monotreme 05.06.13 at 4:10 pm

I saw a someone wearing a t-shirt this weekend that read:
“The trouble with ‘quotes’ on the internet is that it’s difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine” -Abraham Lincoln


giotto 05.06.13 at 4:22 pm

Snopes has a page dedicated to pop manifestations of this phenomenon:

George Carlin and Mark Twain seem to get WASed quite a bit.


Francis Spufford 05.06.13 at 4:23 pm

‘Imagination is the power to disimprison the soul of fact’ – attributed to Coleridge, and circulated as such by Robert Chandler, the translator of Vasily Grossman, from whom a whole lot of people have picked it up. It sounds great, with its suitably Coleridgean word-coinage at ‘disimprison’, and its suggestion, very useful when talking about imaginative works that draw on history, of a non-fictional truth which thrives when liberated from the dungeon of the actual (etc). I only know that it’s a WAS because I wanted to use it myself, and thought I’d better check first. But it is in fact a three-authored composite, with none of the three being Coleridge. First Wordsworth defines belief (not imagination) as ‘the soul of fact’, in ‘Memorials of a Tour in Italy, 1837’. Then Carlyle alludes to Wordsworth in Shooting Niagara (1867): ‘all real “Art” is definable as Fact, or say as the disimprisoned “Soul of Fact”‘. (In other words, proper art lets belief back into the world that nasty democratic vulgarity is corrupting: a proto-Mussolini-esque point, if anything.) Then, finally, in a critical book of 1980, Nineteenth Century Studies: Coleridge to Matthew Arnold, Basil Willey puts the pieces together unfootnoted, without internal quote marks, in a form open to misremembering: ‘The business of the Imagination was not generate chimaeras and fictions – the imaginary – but to ‘disimprison the soul of fact’.’ Presumably the presence of Coleridge in the title is enough to tag the line wrongly in someone’s mind, sometime in the 80s.


merian 05.06.13 at 4:46 pm

Well, for many of this Dante’s famous bon mot is true: se non è vero, è ben trovato.


John Kozak 05.06.13 at 4:47 pm

Doesn’t “The Name of the Rose” have quite a few apparent anachronisms which are actually WASs?


Chris Brooke 05.06.13 at 4:48 pm

Oscar Wilde: the trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.

It’s a shrewd remark, but it doesn’t sound Wildean to me, and I’ve never seen anything that looks like a reliable source.


Sandwichman 05.06.13 at 4:58 pm

One wrongly attributed statement is a tragedy. One million wrongly attributed statements is a statistic.


Manoel 05.06.13 at 4:58 pm

Hey, isn’t int the most wonderful WAS the Odyssey? I guess so.


Sandwichman 05.06.13 at 5:01 pm

Wrongful attribution is the sincerest form of flattery.


marcel 05.06.13 at 5:05 pm

Sandwichman: You left off both Will Rogers and Artemus Ward from your list


Stephen 05.06.13 at 5:10 pm

I have wondered about the saying attributed to Hitler, 1933:
“Give me twelve years in power and Germany will be so changed that nobody will be able to recognise it.”


Aulus Gellius 05.06.13 at 5:12 pm

The attribution of the WAS is part of the poetry too; it means something different to claim that Lincoln said something than to claim that Stalin did.

This is related, I rather think, to the way classicists have started talking about “Hippocratic” texts, i.e., the many texts from different periods that come down to us under Hippocrates’ name. There does seem to have been a real Hippocrates, and a lot of scholarship used to be devoted to figuring out which texts were really his; nowadays, there’s a tendency to treat him as a school or genre rather than an individual. That is, if you wrote a medical tract from a certain kind of theoretical perspective, you might label it “Hippocrates,” just as if you told a story about talking animals you might say it was one of “Aesop’s” (and now scholars talk about “Aesopic” fables), without anyone expecting you to document the source — or perhaps (much more controversially), as Manoel suggests, if you wrote a certain kind of hexameter poem, you might label it “Homer.”


Harold 05.06.13 at 5:12 pm

I believe Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln improved Theodore Parker’s lines, making them more pithy, as often happens when phrases are passed along. Parker was an interesting guy. He rejected all miracles and maintained that Christianity would have been better if the New Testament had never been written. He was thrown out of the Unitarian Church and formed his own independent one, with 7,000 followers. He was one of the Secret Six and also led a mob to free some escaped slaves who were held in a jail to be sent back under the fugitive slave act.


Stephen 05.06.13 at 5:21 pm

GWE Russell, source of many good stories, tells of the journalist who quoted the exchange (or at least, attributed exchange) between Chesterfield and John Wilkes:
“Sir, you will undoubtedly die on the gallows or of the pox.”
“That depends, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
but attributed the words to Gladstone and Disraeli.


Philip 05.06.13 at 5:22 pm

G K Chesterton: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

Probably accurate as to what Chesterton thought, but never actually expressed so pithily. This page makes a good case for it as a conflation of lines from two different Father Brown stories.


rm 05.06.13 at 5:24 pm

There is a speech attributed to Seattle (the chief, not the city) which waxes poetic and faux-romantic about the mystical relationship of the Native American to nature and the tragedy of the loss of connection to nature in the White Man’s society.

It is a fictional speech from a film circa 1970. Which makes sense, as all of its ideas and verbal style fit the 1970s much better than the 19th century. Seattle’s actual speech, to the extent we have a reliable text, said no such thing. He said, if I remember correctly, we hereby commemorate our tribe’s surrender to the completely benevolent rule of our very good friends, the White Americans, and we are so very happy to live on our reservation now, please don’t kill us any more. In other words, he was a politician not a mystic sage.

That hasn’t stopped the speech from being quoted as genuine in countless places, including sometimes in rhetoric textbooks.


rm 05.06.13 at 5:27 pm

Please tell me that “turtles all the way down” is genuine.


rm 05.06.13 at 5:28 pm

You remember that time Emerson asked Thoreau “why are you in jail?” and Thoreau replied “Why are you not in jail?”


rm 05.06.13 at 5:29 pm

Philip @28, the church-sign version of that is “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”


QS 05.06.13 at 5:31 pm

I wonder how many WAS originally spoken by women are attributed falsely to men?


Hector_St_Clare 05.06.13 at 5:35 pm


Maybe the most closely related Chesterton quote to that, is this one here:

“It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumors and conversational catch-words; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: `He was made Man.'”


chris y 05.06.13 at 5:37 pm

rm taps a rich seam: speeches and bon mots attributed to people who didn’t write them down long after the event. This was SOP in antiquity, e.g. Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.. Not Calgacus but Tacitus.


js. 05.06.13 at 6:18 pm

It’s not exactly a WAS, but the “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” bit often attributed to Hegel. Not really there, though you could make the case the that the progressive Aufhebung‘s fit that sort of structure. I’ve also heard it claimed reference to the tripartite structure occurs somewhere in Fichte, but can’t vouch for it (certainly don’t recall it occurring in the Wissenschaftslehre). Anyway, fun topic!


clew 05.06.13 at 6:23 pm

It might be interesting to mine Facebook/G+/etc for shares and reattributions (that’s where I see WASes that don’t convince me). Slightly more difficult in that many of them are images, not text. Maybe Wolfram Alpha would be interested.


Trader Joe 05.06.13 at 6:28 pm

Every trite and ironic sports quote seems to get attributed to Yogi Berra – like “It’s deja vu all over again” – he didn’t say it.

A few dozen more (along with correct attributions) is here….”but no one ever goes there anymore, its too crowded.” (probably not Berra either).


Neville Morley 05.06.13 at 6:47 pm

Happy to send you a pdf of my recently-published article on quoting and misquoting Thucydides (not to mention inventing quotes and misattributing them) if you’re interested. “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most”; “the society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools”; “justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are”. Wish I’d heard your ‘democratic poetry’ idea before I finished this, actually; I went with ‘aphoristic ecosystem’…


mollymooly 05.06.13 at 6:50 pm

The OP already links to , which sources some WASes and confirms others as apocryphal.

Fred Shapiro of the Yale Book of Quotations has coined “quote magnet” for people like Churchill and Twain to whom orphan maxims get attributed.

Not all WASes are inspiring/witty aphorisms; people also like to attach ignoble utterances to the figures they hate.


Sandwichman 05.06.13 at 7:24 pm

“People also like to attach ignoble utterances to the figures they hate.”

Didn’t Stalin say that?


Jeremy Fox 05.06.13 at 7:30 pm

One of the most famous things Charles Darwin ever said (“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”) is something he never said. The correct attribution has recently been chased down:


Harold 05.06.13 at 7:38 pm

The five books attributed to Moses jumps out as being an notable instance of anonymous works attributed to a “quote magnet.”


Sandwichman 05.06.13 at 7:43 pm

Wait a minute! You mean Popeye didn’t say “I am what I am”?


Bruce Wilder 05.06.13 at 7:56 pm

Some years ago, the internet made very popular the misattribution of a Marianne Williamson pep talk to Nelson Mandela. This webpage claims some role in correcting the error.

It might be interesting to know what gets corrected, and why. (That Marianne Williamson has “followers” probably helps, as does, perhaps, the fact that Mandela has, in fact, given important speeches.)


Purple Platypus 05.06.13 at 7:58 pm

js@36, when I was in high school I heard that attributed to ARISTOTLE – and by a teacher, not some random showoff. Now that I know something of philosophy, this is, of course, risible.


Quillettante 05.06.13 at 7:59 pm

the WAS I see the most is “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results,” attributed to Einstein. I went down a WAS rathole chasing that one down, but couldn’t find any proof that Einstein ever said anything of the kind. American libertarians seem to use this one a lot.


MikeM 05.06.13 at 8:26 pm

Haven’t you heard of Stigler’s Law of Eponymy? “In its simplest and strongest form it says: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” Stigler named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of “Stigler’s law”, consciously making “Stigler’s law” exemplify itself.”'s_law_of_eponymy


Bloix 05.06.13 at 8:29 pm

MLK was a preacher whose speeches follow the extemporized sermon form, which traditionally incorporates quotations without direct attribution. In this style of speaking, the preacher is expected to have a large store of texts from the Bible and from hymns, poems, and other sources, that are committed to memory and can be inserted as appropriate for powerful rhetorical effect.

For someone familiar with the tradition, it’s obvious that King was quoting the ‘arc of history’ line. One section of the speech is a string of quotations, each introduced with the phrase, “How Long? Not long, because,” and then a quotation follows:

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because truth crushed to earth will rise again. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because no lie can live forever. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because you shall reap what you sow. (Yes, sir)

How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long)
Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak)
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir)
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir)
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

How long? Not long, (Not long) because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; (Yes, sir) …


John Quiggin 05.06.13 at 8:32 pm

This is great! I’ve spent a lot of time chasing this kind of thing usually ending up finding nothing. Here are some of my favorites

(From my most recent post) Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” – maybe from Aristophanes, Socrates says something vaguely similar in the Republic

Keynes: “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” Keynes argues this line, but the quote can’t be found.

Hitler: “We need law and order. Yes, without law and order our nation cannot survive” Bogus but popular on the left in the 60s. Wikiquote gives a rightwing version on gun control which I haven’t seen

And a couple of genuine ones

Keynes 1937 “The boom not the slump is the time for austerity” cited to Collected Writings vol 21 by the Roosevelt Institute (I plan to check this for myself, when I get a moment)

Hayek ” My personal preference inclines to a liberal dictatorship and not to a democratic government where all liberalism is absent ” – and plenty more along the same lines.


SJ 05.06.13 at 8:41 pm

I have a number of favourites.

I wish that Margaret Thatcher has actually said that “Any man over the age of thirty who finds himself on a bus can consider himself a failure”.

There is some confusion over whether “The plural of anecdote is data” or not, and who might feel that way about it. –

The most famous Irish one I can think of is the DeValera vision of Ireland featuring “Comely Maidens dancing at the crossroads” – the version of that story I have heard is that the phrase appeared in an early draft of a radio broadcast he gave.

There is a lovely anecdote about someone asking a women if they would sleep with them for some obscene sum of money and then declaring character has been established with an affirmative response, and that all that remains is to negotiate… has some resources…


marcel 05.06.13 at 8:49 pm

Sandwichman: My understanding is that it was Mr. Potatohead who said “I yam what I yam”.


Bloix 05.06.13 at 9:03 pm

The master of the misattributed quotation is Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at the Yale Law School and author of the Yale Book of Quotations. Shapiro uses online databases to much better effect than any prior book of quotations, and he’s more skeptical than most.

Shapiro writes a column for the Yale Alumni Magazine on the origins of quotations and catch-phrases, and they are available here:


praymont 05.06.13 at 9:04 pm

“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” Often attributed to Goering or other Nazi leaders. It’s based on a line from a play by the Nazi author, Hans Johst: “Whenever I hear of culture … I release the safety catch of my Browning!”


praymont 05.06.13 at 9:14 pm

JQ: Quote Investigator traces the Socrates line to a 1907 Cambridge dissertation:


Anderson 05.06.13 at 9:31 pm

Robert Skidelsky does indeed say that the market-irrationality quote isn’t Keynes, and neither is “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Or at least, that statement is *attributed* to Skidelsky.

… 54: That is one of my two favorite Nazi quotes (actually, my only favorite Nazi quotes). The other is from the otherwise execrable Albert Forster, gauleiter of Danzig, whose comment on Himmler’s annoying demands for racial classifications of the persons under his rule was “if I looked like Himmler, I would not talk about race. ” (Quoted in D.C. Watt, “How War Came,” at 536.)


Anderson 05.06.13 at 9:35 pm

54: in Johst’s defense, the line is a little snappier in the original: “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!”

But yeah, how a Browning semiautomatic pistol got changed into a revolver (with of course no safety catch) is a mystery.

… Dude lived until 1978, says Wikipedia. “On his release he was unable to reestablish his career as a writer. He was only able to publish poems under the pseudonym ‘Odemar Oderich’ for Die kluge Hausfrau, the magazine of the German supermarket chain Edeka.”


novakant 05.06.13 at 9:44 pm

Well, of course Hegel didn’t invent the triad, but the triadic structure, as opposed to the binary structure still pervasive in philosophy (true/false, subject/object, mind/matter) is an essential building block of his work and he pushed it further than anyone I know of.


Anderson 05.06.13 at 9:58 pm

Frederick Copleston says more or less what Novakant said:

“… Hegel carries out with logical consecutiveness and up to the point of obstinacy the principle of development which Fichte had discovered [sic?], and which Schelling also had occasionally employed – the threefold rhythm thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”

“Discovered,” as opposed to “concocted,” seems disputable. Did Kant “discover” the existence of the noumenon?


Theophylact 05.06.13 at 10:02 pm

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Most frequently attributed to Einstein, but also to Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin; but its first known appearance is from a 1981 text from Narcotics anonymous.


john c. halasz 05.06.13 at 10:05 pm


Discovered/invented is the usual opposition and usually the answer is both and neither.

“Did Kant “discover” the existence of the noumenon?”

No, he invented the notion of a transcendental ego, out of an obscure philosophical compulsion.


js. 05.06.13 at 10:23 pm

Well, of course Hegel didn’t invent the triad

My point was just that particular triad doesn’t actually seem to occur in Hegel’s writings. Not explicitly, anyway. (Also, I’m not convinced that it isn’t a bit of a lazy shorthand that doesn’t quite accurately represent what’s supposed to be going on in, say, the progression of consciousness or something, but far be it from me to actually attempt to interpret Hegel.)


Tim Wilkinson 05.06.13 at 10:28 pm

re: the Keynes quote about ‘austerity’ – early-ish appearances that I’ve seen were sourced simply as “1937: Collected Works”. This suggests that the Roosevelt Inst. might have been the primary internet source, since they at least purport to narrow it down to a single volume of the compendium. In recent circulation even the skeletal citation has mostly been shed.

Just to reiterate why I consider this of particular interest: the quote has him appearing to the casual eye to take a kind of Overton-centrist line on ‘austerity’; not one as abject as the Labour Party’s ‘cutting too far and too fast’, but more nebulously suggestive that we do need ‘austerity’, though it should have been done in the boom times:

The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity

I questioned this attribution of support for ‘austerity’ when JQ quoted it on a very recent thread, because this word ‘austerity’, I think it means Spartan belt-tightening, and is used to signify a severe limitation on consumption by ordinary people (and specifically in the current climate, government spending on same). I took Keynes not to be talking about any such thing, but rather of postponing spending on non-urgent works and raising tax revenues.

Intrigued by Keynes’s use of the term ‘austerity’, and vaguely hoping that I might find out what its pre-War signification might have been, I tracked the quote down to thisnewspaper article, and found it had been slightly truncated. (The relevant thread was closed by then, so this 2nd chance is handy.) The complete sentence – unfortunately the only use of the term in the relevant article – is:

The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

‘At the Treasury’ makes a minor but significant difference – specifying that the ‘austerity’ in question is a governmental matter, and not to be confused with ‘austerity’ simpliciter. (Even ‘the right time’ rather than ‘the time’ makes a difference, but I won’t start trying to parse that now.)

The context confirms that ‘austerity at the treasury’ is understood to mean a reduction in borrowing concomitant with increased taxation. This is just about consonant with current talk of austerity as about paying down national debt – but in context, it’s the increased taxation aimed at damping excessive expansion which is Keynes’s focus, rather than any particular urgency about debt.

Notably absent are present-day talking points about the interest payments or ‘confidence’ or Thatcherite housekeeping, which would present debt reduction (which funded by spending cuts = ‘austerity’, 2010s vintage) as the top priority. Au contraire – while tax rises are needed to damp demand in 1937, using them to pay down debt would place too much strain on the fiscal system – the most that should be done on that front would be to avoid borrowing more for emergency expenditures on bank bailouts armaments, and instead fund such expenditures out of taxation.

Needless to say, Keynes’s understanding of ‘austerity at the Treasury’ emphatically does not countenance as sane the idea of ‘dealing with the deficit’ (the Cons in the UK mantra) by permanently hollowing out what remains of public services and state responsibilities. Not even were we at the height of a boom.

Just as it is advisable for the Government to incur debt during the slump, so for the same reasons it is now advisable that they should incline to the opposite policy. Aggregate demand is increased by loan-expenditure and decreased when loans are discharged out of taxation. In view of the high rest of the armaments. which we cannot postpone, it would put too much strain on our fiscal system actually to discharge debt, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer should, I suggest, meet the main part of the rest of armaments out of taxation, raising taxes, and withholding all relief from taxation for the present as something to be undertaken in 1938 or 1939, or whenever there are signs of recession. The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

(The next para emphasises the point that Keynes is not talking about spending cuts, but at most merely deferring non-urgent projects until the economy has cooled down/needs warming up again:

Just as it is advisable for local authorities to press on with capital expenditure during the slump, so it is now [i.e. in a ‘boom’] advisable that they should postpone whatever new enterprises can reasonably be held back. I don’t mean that they should abandon their plans of improvement. On the contrary, they should have them fully matured, available far quick release at the right moment.)

The piece seems, btw, to confirm my unanswered argument against Tim Worstall on the earlier thread as not only right in itself, but entirely representative of what Keynes was saying.


Anderson 05.06.13 at 10:31 pm

61: Thesis – BOTH

Antithesis – NEITHER

Synthesis – IT DEPENDS


Tim Wilkinson 05.06.13 at 10:36 pm

‘rest of the armaments’ s/b ‘cost of’ etc.

‘I tracked the quote down to this newspaper article, and found it had been slightly truncated.’ Actually, the other way round – found a variant which was clearly more complete, then tracked that untruncated version down to the source supplied above.


PGD 05.06.13 at 10:48 pm

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Most frequently attributed to Einstein, but also to Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin;

a good example of a quote where you can tell the attribution is false just from reading the quote and having even a cursory knowledge of the work of the people it is attributed to. As soon as you read that quote you flash on the last self-righteous 12-step bore you met, it’s an unmistakable style.


Garson O'Toole 05.06.13 at 11:42 pm

Great thanks to Corey Robin for linking to the Quote Investigator website. The magazine article sounds like an excellent idea, and your perspective that the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS) “is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd” is fresh and interesting. Special thanks to Mollymooly, praymount, SJ and the many perceptive commentators.

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following citation that is relevant to the example in the article:

A boy of fifteen who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at twenty.
Quoted in Thomas Jefferson, Journal, Jan. 1799

The QI website does have analyses of some of the quotations mentioned in the comments. Here are the article titles without links.

1) People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf
2) The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice
3) Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times
4) The Market Can Remain Irrational Longer Than You Can Remain Solvent
5) When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?
6) Also, eight quotations attributed to Yogi Berra

Best wishes, Garson O’Toole – Quote Investigator


Josh 05.06.13 at 11:45 pm

No discussion on the Internet of WASes is complete without James Nicoll: “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.”


pedant 05.06.13 at 11:48 pm

The West Point Museum, which misquotes Plato on war, also misquotes Thucydides, as having said:

“Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”

Nope. He never said it.

(It could, just possibly, be argued that it is a misleading paraphrase of some comments in 5.26 in which Thucydides mentions one particular period of peace in the Peloponnesian War, and says of it that it was more like an armistice. But making that observation about one particular period of peace in no way entails that one is committed to the view that *all* peace, always, is nothing more than an armistice in a continual war. Quite the opposite: Thucydides’ point is that this peace was different from ordinary periods of peace, which are *not* merely armistices.)


floopmeister 05.06.13 at 11:53 pm

“Beam us down Scotty”

“Elementary, my Dear Watson”.

Neither apparently appear anywhere in the respective bodies of work…


Sandwichman 05.07.13 at 12:16 am

Let’s not omit ideas that Marx criticized and were subsequently wrongly attributed to him.


jake the snake 05.07.13 at 12:23 am

Kirk actually did say, ” Beam us up, Mr, Scott.”


liciabobesha 05.07.13 at 12:51 am

There’s a very popular Faulkner quote that I’m pretty sure he never said:

To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. – William Faulkner

I wrote about it and the rabbit hole of trying to find the source here:


Tim Wilkinson 05.07.13 at 1:22 am

JQ – my first comment has disappeared down the moderation hole, so will just repeat that the austerity (near-) quote seems to have come from this newspaper article: – at start of section IV, 4th page (p11).


Lost Left Coaster 05.07.13 at 2:42 am

My favourite is this one, always attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It does not appear in any of her writings or speeches, and there is no other source for this quote. Her own foundation, which bears the quote prominently on its website, admits as much:

But this doesn’t stop the quote from being plastered on email signatures, t-shirts, websites, etc. I fear that many people only know Margaret Mead because of that quote. I’ve always rather disliked the statement, even when I didn’t know it was apocryphal (excuse me, a WAS), because it seems to harbour a certain contempt for the masses and a lack of recognition for how revolutions arise from resonance.


James 05.07.13 at 2:57 am

One I got taught was the Descartes never wrote Cogito Ergo Sum. I have never tried to check this out however.


James 05.07.13 at 3:00 am

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Oddly enough I first came across this attributed to A.A. Milne.


Alan 05.07.13 at 3:01 am

I believe the WAS to Kirk was “Beam us up Scotty”.

The ramified problems of misattribution to fictional entities is boggling.


Clifford Smith 05.07.13 at 3:23 am

Jeff Shoulson’s comment about misquotation being a tool of courtly/humanistic sprezzatura seems like it could be applied to Machiavelli’s writings, which are peppered with spurious/modified quotations and/or appeals to tradition. Has any work been done on this? It would be an interesting antidote to the Straussian practice of applying the “doctrine of logographic necessity” to the interpretation of his writing, ‘errors’ and all.


godoggo 05.07.13 at 3:36 am

I once saw a clip of Cagney saying he never actually said “Nyah, you dirty rat,” at which point, well, you know.


garymar 05.07.13 at 3:56 am

The clip on Youtube from the movie “Taxi” has Cagney saying “you dirty yellow-bellied rat”.


Brian Schmidt 05.07.13 at 4:43 am

How about Wrongly Attributed Existence of a Statement? The WAES that I have is for William F. Buckley who allegedly apologized in the 1960s for the express racism in the 1950s National Review. I can find no speech or quote from Buckley in that period to verify it (and only one semi-admission of error, in 2004). Some friends from many decades later claim he apologized, but that’s it.

Getting back on-topic, there’s a good book, They Never Said It. Been years since I read it, but apparently a million WAS go to Lincoln saying things that are amazingly relevant to the modern political and religious conflicts.


js. 05.07.13 at 4:47 am

James @72,

I’m pretty sure Descartes does say something equivalent in the Discourse on Method, (which is in French). It is true that the sentence never occurs in that form in his most-read text, The Meditations.


adam.smith 05.07.13 at 5:16 am

My favorite is also the “communist with 2o” which in Germany is often attributed to post-war Social Democrat Herbert Wehner (as well as to Shaw, Croce, etc.)

To add a new one:
“Play it again, Sam” isn’t in Casablanca.

And best I know, Marx never called the state the “executive committee of the bourgoisie” but rather the similar but not equivalent:
“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. ”
Die moderne Staatsgewalt ist nur ein Ausschuß, der die gemeinschaftlichen Geschäfte der ganzen Bourgeoisklasse verwaltet.


Tony Lynch 05.07.13 at 5:21 am

And even if one DID say something, still one may have “misspoken”.


Dr. Hilarius 05.07.13 at 5:59 am

There are multiple fake Hitler gun control quotes:

“This year will go down in history! For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!”

“To conquer a nation, first disarm its citizens.”

I’m fairly certain there is at least one more.


Billikin 05.07.13 at 6:10 am

“There are multiple fake Hitler gun control quotes:
. . . .
“I’m fairly certain there is at least one more.”

“Ist das nicht ein Schiessgewehr?
Or are you just glad to see me?”



bad Jim 05.07.13 at 6:12 am

There’s a neat example in something Franklin wrote which was turned into something more pithy:

Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.

became “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”.

(A.E. Houseman: “malt does more than Milton can/to justify God’s ways to man”)

Wikiquote says Cogito, ergo sum is found in Principia philosophiae, Part I, Article 7


Billikin 05.07.13 at 6:22 am

“Play it again, Sam” isn’t in Casablanca.”

No, it’s, “Play it, Sam. For old time’s sake.”



bad Jim 05.07.13 at 6:50 am

Diderot has also been improved:

Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

(And his hands would plait the priest’s entrails,
For want of a rope, to strangle kings.)

became “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest,” which isn’t quite the same thing.

I thought Voltaire wrote “God is a comedian playing to an audience too terrified to laugh”, but the original was Mencken: “Creator — A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.”


Anderson 05.07.13 at 7:16 am

73: I suspect Morris was thinking of these two quotes from Faulkner (in the first, he is quoting Sherwood Anderson).

“You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn,” he told me. It dont matter where it was, just so you remember it and aint ashamed of it. Because one place to start from is just as important as any other. You’re a country boy; all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from.” ***

Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it ….


Aaron Schroeder 05.07.13 at 7:59 am

Not sure whether this is what you had in mind, but there are always these sorts of stories that get attributed to one artist or another.

– X artist was applying for an apprenticeship before he was famous. The master of the shop was surprised that the applicant didn’t bring any materials to exhibit his worth. When asked just why the master should take him on, X artist took out a sheet of paper and drew a perfect circle, freehand.

– X artist went to a very expensive meal with a large group. Assuming that X artist would be paying, everyone ate heartily and lapped up bottle after bottle of expensive wine. When the bill came, however, X artist didn’t reach to pay, and the other guests began to get nervous. After a moment, X artist asked the waiter for a cocktail napkin, drew and signed a small picture, put it on top of the check, and got up to leave.


Phil 05.07.13 at 8:58 am

I’d heard 92a applied to Giotto and Michelangelo; nobody more recent. As for 92b, the twist I’d heard was that Picasso did this all the time, specifically with the ‘dove of peace’ emblem. The South of France must be littered with Picasso dove serviettes.


David 05.07.13 at 9:05 am

The Mrs Thatcher on the bus one is infuriating, but someone got that above.

In the middle of the maze at Cliveden, the National Trust have carved in stone a quotation (“What do I do when I am lost in the forest? Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost …”) which they attribute to Albert Einstein. It is in fact a version of a Pacific Northwestern teaching story by David Wagoner.


Francis Spufford 05.07.13 at 9:44 am

Maybe there are two processes at work here: the one that pins quotes to people that the hearer and speaker are sure to have heard of, and a second one in which the democratic poetry lies and which works on the classical evolutionary combination of variation and selection, so that multiple near versions of an actual utterance are generated, and then are tested by mouth for sayability/memorability.


bad Jim 05.07.13 at 9:51 am

“Do not attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”, generally known as Hanlon’s razor, is of uncertain provenance. I claim that I had the same insight in the early 1970’s, before it became widely known. When the scope of Nixon’s crimes became clear, though, it turned out to be wrong. Malice was the right explanation. This may also turn out to have been the case in subsequent administrations.


John Quiggin 05.07.13 at 10:12 am

@Tim Wilkinson The “at the Treasury” bit is crucial, I agree. The central idea of Keynesian demand management is that the government should be expansive when private demand is depressed and austere when private demand is excessive. By contrast, liquidationism preaches austerity all round as a response to crisis.


John Quiggin 05.07.13 at 10:13 am

@Bad Jim. The Australian version is “When faced with the choice between a conspiracy and a stuffup, go for the stuffup every time”. It certainly seems to work well in Oz.


Sean Purdy 05.07.13 at 10:26 am

Evidence of Winston Churchill’s quote-magnetism, even while he was still alive, was provided by the following exchange:
Churchill (on hearing somebody else say something witty): “I wish I’d said that.”
Female friend: “You will, Winston, you will.”

(I may, of course, have either misremembered or invented this.)


Phil 05.07.13 at 10:48 am

And then he puked on her shoes.


Katherine 05.07.13 at 10:50 am

A recent one that comes to mind was around the death of Osama Bin Laden. Almost immediately that the news came – and with it pictures of groups of American people dancing and celebrating – a quote attibuted to MLK circulated on Facebook (and probably elsewhere):

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

The explanation is here:

Roughly, a private person said it, whilst also saying something about or by MLK. The two got mixed up by someone else, and off it went.


Katherine 05.07.13 at 10:52 am


Katherine 05.07.13 at 10:54 am

A nice statement of the phenomenon from the Atlantic article:

“Fake quotations are pithier, more dramatic, more on point, than the things people usually say in real life. It’s not surprising that they are often the survivors of the evolutionary battle for mindshare. “


Anderson 05.07.13 at 11:15 am

99: Whistler to Wilde, I’d thought.


Z 05.07.13 at 11:20 am

He is unworthy of the name of man who is ignorant of
the fact that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side.

This is often attributed to Plato, especially in the English speaking world (it appears, for instance, on the walls of UCLA Math department). I could not find any reference to it in the works of Plato. The oldest reference I know is a book called Memorabilia Mathematica, a collection of quotes about mathematics by Robert Édouard Moritz. There, it is said to be quoted from Plato by Sophie Germain in Mémoire sur les surfaces élastiques but I read Mémoire and found nothing even remotely approaching the quote.


Z 05.07.13 at 11:31 am

Oh, and Descartes does absolutely write je pens, donc je suis which would translate in latin as the usual Cogito in Discours de la Méthode (actually twice, if I am not mistaken), but never in Latin and only as part of longer sentences e.g.

And having noticed that this truth: I think, therefore I am was so strong and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics could not shake it, I considered that I could accept it, without qualms, as the first principle for the philosophy I was seeking (my translation).


dave heasman 05.07.13 at 11:40 am

`”You’re looking rough; the lines on your face.”

“They’re laughter lines.”

“Nothing’s that funny.”

Invariably these days attributed to George Melly addressing Mick Jagger,

but I recall it from the late 70s Jack Sheldon to Chet Baker, and delighted I am to see some sort of confirmation –


Peter Whiteford 05.07.13 at 11:53 am

Petronius Arbiter used to be quoted on the right in Australia as allegedly writing:
” We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

I always took it that only people profoundly ignorant of the ancient world could believe that a Roman could write something like this.


Clay Shirky 05.07.13 at 12:43 pm

Yogi Berra: “I never said most of the things I said.”

(The only circumstance under which I would post a Freakonomics link…)


Anderson 05.07.13 at 12:59 pm

109: Meta-quotations! Emerson: “I hate quotations; tell me what you know.”


rea 05.07.13 at 1:29 pm

Wait a minute! You mean Popeye didn’t say “I am what I am”?

No it was . . . someone else. Exodus 3:14:

And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you


hix 05.07.13 at 1:31 pm

“Do not trust any statistic you did not fake yourself”

Speaking of Nazis. Attriuted to Churchill in Germany. Almost anything that smells remotely like Nazi has been extinguished from the language. Not this one, no one realiced for a long time this one was an invention by Nazi prohpaganda. Or maybe that is another false attribution, who knows.


js. 05.07.13 at 2:57 pm

@99, 104:

I’ve also seen that attributed to Whistler, addressed to Wilde.

Z @106: That’s exactly the bit I was thinking of; though bad Jim is also right @88.


Anderson 05.07.13 at 3:25 pm

113: Wikiquote sources it to an 1907 book on Wilde.

Oscar Wilde: “I wish I had said that”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

It reminds me of a line from Thomas Reed, onetime Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives:

At one dinner party when the conversation turned on gambling, another famous raconteur, Senator Choate of New York, remarked somewhat unctuously that he had never made a bet on a horse or a card or anything else in his life. “I wish I could say that,” a fellow guest said earnestly. “Why caaan’t you?” asked Reed with his peculiar twang. “Choate did.”

–Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower


Alex 05.07.13 at 4:04 pm

I am surprised nobody has mentioned that CT has at least one of its very own. George Orwell didn’t say that a Bolshevik is someone who says you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs, and if you ask him where’s the omelette he’ll tell you Rome wasn’t built in a day; in fact, he said that the hypothetical Bolshevik would tell you not to expect everything all in a moment. The first, much better, version was invented in a comment right here, apparently by Kevin Donoghue:


LizardBreath 05.07.13 at 5:45 pm

There’s a couple of different categories — quotes that can be traced to the person they’re attributed to, but have been improved or warped by the folk process is one, and quotes that are attributed to someone who never said anything of the sort is an entirely different category.


Bruce Wilder 05.07.13 at 6:58 pm

Carthago delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed], Cato the Elder’s oft-repeated insistence that Rome finally and completely crush its rival, has its own Wikipedia article, backed, apparently by considerable scholarship on how that pithy three word phrase evolved from the intermediate paraphrase, “Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” of an original, for which we have no primary source. The pithier three word phrase, we are told, was used to promote the third Anglo-Dutch War, by no less a person than Anthony Ashley Cooper, a founder of the Whig party, patron of John Locke. Anyway, it might be another example of the evolution of phrasing and attribution.


Bruce Wilder 05.07.13 at 7:37 pm

@ 115

Not just two categories, but a weird, swirling dynamic of fame, persuasion and public relations, which seeks to manufacture and disseminate reputation and ideas. There isn’t just true and false, or true-but-improved and false, there’s also the charming but confusing wonderland down the rabbit hole of the WAS, where every quotation assumes a dream-like plausibility, too true to be false and too good to be true. Skeptical doubt and pedantry are the baroque replacements for the simple true or false, of a more naïve philosophy, history or politics.


Harold 05.07.13 at 8:03 pm

It is definitely a swirling dynamic. In antiquity, for example, unlike today when originality is prized, unattributed statements, proverbs and the like, had even more credibility than attributed ones, so you could attribute your own original statement to the time-honored wisdom of the collective ancestors.


Jaycie 05.07.13 at 8:06 pm

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” – frequently attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt; Wikiquote lists it as ‘disputed’ and claims it was coined (in a less pithy fashion) by a certain Henry Thomas Buckle. I am sure I have seen it attributed to other quote magnets too.


Salient 05.07.13 at 11:55 pm

“If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution” is what people smugly imagine Emma Goldman saying to some too-serious vanguard cadre, and by extension, anyone who they imagine is too stuffy. She said something like it, but the sentence as written above was created by a T-shirt designer.

I get this and sympathize with the desire for correctness, especially since the more accurate version is not smug at all, but… you’re going to have to pry my T-shirt of Emma Goldman playing Dance Dance Revolution from my cold. dead. hands.


bad Jim 05.08.13 at 2:20 am

Sandwichman and marcel will be happy to know that Wikiquote does credit Josh Billings with the original version of the contested quote:

I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.

Everybody’s Friend (1874), repeating an observation attributed to Socrates

(My late good friend and patent attorney was fond of the phrase and took the trouble to locate the original in Bartlett’s.)


bad Jim 05.08.13 at 2:38 am

Einstein famously remarked, “Raffiniert is der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,” usually rendered magisterially as “Subtle is the Lord, but He is not malicious.” Apparently this doesn’t convey the nuance of the original; Einstein himself translated it into something fit for a T-shirt: “God’s sneaky, but he ain’t mean.”


Yosemite Semite 05.08.13 at 3:34 am

Recently a friend from my high school got in touch with me after some 50 years. In following up on his contact, I found the following epigraph (? perhaps; tag; signature) on his online profile:

“Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.” — Thomas Jefferson.

That immediately made me suspicious, for no good reason. I tried to track it down, and wound up at the Monticello Foundation. The Foundation says that it finds no source for that quotation in any of the materials it holds, and couldn’t find a credible source in online searches that it conducted. (

That quote and its attribution, however, is widely spread throughout the online presence of America’s gun culture, as you might imagine.


Bloix 05.08.13 at 1:10 pm

“Raffiniert is der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht” – the meaning is that the physical world may be very difficult for humans to understand, but it is not beyond human understanding.


MikeN 05.08.13 at 1:52 pm

I was very disappointed to learn that George W. Bush did not say “The problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.”


Henry (not the famous one) 05.08.13 at 2:50 pm

Then there’s the spurious claim that Dante said that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” Dante not only did not say this, but in his scheme of Hell the neutrals not only are not in the hottest places, but are not even in Hell at all. Instead, they are found outside the gates of Hell, where they chase a flag that turns one way and then the other, while being stung by wasps, for the rest of eternity. This has a lot to do, of course, with Dante’s fierce partisanship: his contempt for fencesitters was so deep that neither Heaven nor Hell would have them.

JFK and MLK Jr. are both credited with repeating this WAS. In JFK’s case it represents hypocrisy and cold war bravado at its worst, since we know that he was capable of maintaining neutrality when it came to civil rights at home. Which makes it that much more telling if MLK had repeated it, since the barb would have been aimed at timid liberals such as JFK.


Henry (not the famous one) 05.08.13 at 2:54 pm

Is there a subcategory for consciously altered quotations? Steinberg improved on Descartes with his cartoon of a possum with a thought balloon over his head stating “Cogito ergo possum.”

And I still have that flyer found on the streets of Sligo in 1969, just as the British troops were arriving in the North, that states that “Ireland’s difficulty is England’s opportunity.”


Phil 05.08.13 at 7:22 pm

Then there’s the “ancient Chinese curse” “May you live in interesting times”. I’d been under the impression it had been coined by RFK or his speechwriter, but apparently not. The forces of Wikipedia have traced it all the way back to 1936 – although, frustratingly, the oldest citation is in English and refers to it as a “Chinese curse”, which doesn’t get us much further in terms of an origin.


Harold 05.09.13 at 2:41 pm

This reminds me that FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, is taken from Francis Bacon — probably everyone here knows it, but it was news to me).


ajay 05.09.13 at 3:18 pm

in Johst’s defense, the line is a little snappier in the original: “Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!”

I always wondered if this is a viable pun in German (referring to Robert, or Elizabeth Barrett, Browning). In which case it would be rather clever. But probably not.


Pat 05.09.13 at 11:54 pm

I had heard “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” ascribed variously to Woody Allen, Elvis Costello, Miles Davis… perhaps half a dozen or more celebrities in total. So far as I can tell, absolutely no one knows who said it first. Others have already noted one of my favorite examples of this, the “that’s when I reach for my revolver” attributed to pretty much every top Nazi but really the responsibility of playwright Hans Johst. (Anderson, not to be disagreeable, but the English rendering is far preferable to the hideously technical original German.)

There’s also a lengthy list of almost correct movie misquotations (“Play it again, Sam,” “Ooh, you dirty rat” et alia) that aren’t quite what you’re talking about but are possibly worth a paragraph-long digression (I trust your Google-fu is strong enough to find those).


bad Jim 05.10.13 at 4:58 am

Ajay, for my part I wondered why Browning and not Luger, but it turns out that John Browning designed a bunch of definitive automatic pistols. With the 9mm and .32 he had to design around his own patents for the .45, which belonged to Colt. (Back then, what we now term semi-autos were called automatics and fully automatic weapons were called machine guns.)

“Entsichere” — un-secure — doesn’t work in English. In terms of the way old revolvers worked, one equivalent would be”I cock my Colt”, but that could be misconstrued.


Pat 05.10.13 at 4:54 pm

“Entsicheren” – release the safety. There’s not a single word that means it, but it’s not terribly difficult to translate.


Matthew Davidson 05.11.13 at 4:23 am

Stephen Fry called the stage of life where one becomes such a celebrated and eminent wit that one joins Wilde, Marx, Einstein, Marx (the other one), et. al. as the frequent target of misattribution as “one’s anecdotage”. At least I think it was Stephen Fry. If I’m wrong it is entirely appropriate.


Kevin Hill 05.11.13 at 10:01 am

Socrates is frequently given credit for “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world” but the original source seems to be Plutarch (Of Banishment) who attributes it to Socrates. Where Plutarch found the quote is unknown since it isn’t in Plato or Xenophon and, in fact, seems to contradict the point Socrates makes in the dialogue with Crito.


shpx.ohfu 05.12.13 at 2:15 pm

See also William Gibson @greatdismal on “attribution decay.”

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