Tag Archives: famous misquotations

Famous Misquotations: Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThis is one of the most overused quotations in the world of education: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” by William Butler Yeats. You find it on websites for schools and colleges as well as many books about education and teaching. And of course, it is found on all kinds of merchandise: posters, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and so forth. But like many quotes found on the internet, there is no evidence that the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats ever said or wrote this. Some websites attribute the quote to Socrates, Plato, or Plutarch. So which is correct? Let me welcome you into the classroom of Famous Misquotations 101, where we will seek enlightenment.

Garson O’Toole, commonly known as the Quote Investigator, does a deep dive into the origins of this quotation in his fascinating book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That (2017). He begins his investigation with the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch’s essay “On Listening” found in Moralia (“Morals” c. 100): “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth [Loeb Classical Library, 1927].” Almost 70 years later, Robin Waterfield translates the passage a little bit differently for the Penguin Classics edition (1992): “For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.”

As is common with misquotations, an author’s paraphrase of the ideas of a notable writer mistakenly becomes attributed to that writer. O’Toole presents Exhibit A in The Dialogues of Plato (1892) translated by Benjamin Jowett. In the introduction to “The Republic,” Jowett describes Plato’s concept of enlightenment: “Education is represented by [Plato], not as the filling of a vessel, but as the turning the eye of the soul towards the light.” Note that these are Jowett’s words and not Plato’s. Nevertheless, this quote is often mistakenly attributed to Plato or his famous teacher, Socrates.

By now you may be asking: “So how in the world does a quote attributed to Plutarch, Plato, or Socrates, jump a few centuries and get attributed to a 19th-century poet?” Excellent question, Padawan. O’Toole presents Exhibit B: the attribution of a quote transferred to another writer by proximity. Say what? O’Toole was able to find a book, Visions and Image: A Way of Seeing (1968) by James Sweeney. In the book, Sweeney places the Plutarch quote adjacent to a quote by William Butler Yeats. Here is the sentence: “William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, ‘Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them’ and Plutarch in ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.'” You can see what happens here if you do not read this sentence carefully. It only took one reader to read it this way and erroneously conflate the two quotes: “William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Alas, this careless reading is what ignited the wildfire of this ubiquitous misquotation. It doesn’t help matters when the future editor of a collection of quotations does not research it thoroughly and perpetuates the misquotation by putting it in print. Specifically, Robert Fitzhenry the editor (or perhaps his team) of the Barnes and Noble Book of Quotations (1987) mistakenly attributes the Plutarch quote to William Butler Yeats. Oops!

Interestingly, while researching another topic, I serendipitously came across a beautiful passage by the Italian scholar, Marsilio Ficino, who was a student of Plato and one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. In his letters, written between 1474 to 1494, Facino employs the same metaphor as Plutarch [Volume 4, Letter 7]: “As the sky is to the light of the sun, so is the mind to the light of truth and wisdom. Neither the sky nor the intellect every receive rays of light when they are clouded, but once they are pure and clear they both receive them immediately… the divine cannot be spoke or learned as other things are. However, from continued application and a matching of one’s life to the divine, suddenly, as if from a leaping spark, a light is kindled in the mind and thereafter nourishes itself.”

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading:
Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, Garson O’Toole, Little A, 2017.

Barnes and Noble Book of Quotations, Robert Fitzhenry, Barnes and Noble, 1987
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/28/mind-fire/


Famous Misquotations: In a Time of Universal Deceit, Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act

atkins bookshelf quotations

This quotation, which has a few variants (such as, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary art” or “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.”) is often attributed to George Orwell. It’s irresistible to writers — particularly political writers — serving as a brilliant epigram that captures the zeitgeist of the modern world. It certainly sounds like him, but, unfortunately there is no evidence that he either said or wrote those words. (Sorry, Orwell fans.)

Thanks to the dedicated detective work of several persistent quotation sleuths, two early sources of the misattributed quotations have been found. So at the very least, we have identified the rascals! The earliest appearance is in the 1982 book Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel by Venturino Venturini. Venturing includes the quote “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” as an epigraph and attributes it to Orwell. The second is a letter from a reader of Science Dimension, a Canadian periodical, that repeats the misattribution: “I think George Orwell said in his book 1984 that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Perhaps the closest that the quotation detectives could find, as a precursor to this famous quotation, is this sentence by Antonio Gramsci, a political theorist, that appeared in the Italian weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order”) in 1919: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.”

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/02/24/truth-revolutionary/


Famous Misquotations: We Cannot Live Only for Ourselves

atkins bookshelf quotations

On website after website you find this quotation attributed to American novelist Herman Melville, who famously wrote the Great American novel Moby-Dick (1851): “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow-men; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” And depending on what website you are on, the “sympathetic threads” may appear as ” invisible threads” or “sympathetic fibers.” Regardless of the precise phrasing, the only problem with this quotation is that (1) it has been altered from the original; and (2) Herman Melville never wrote this.

When we turn to the original source text, we find that the individual who wrote this had a similar name — Henry Melvill. Reverend Henry Melvill (1798-1871), no relation, was a famous Anglican preacher known for his very eloquent and periphrastic sermons. He was considered the most popular preacher in London drawing very large devoted crowds. Besides his eloquence, Melvill was known for his distinctive style: speaking very rapidly. The editor to his sermons, Rev. C. P. McIlvaine writes: “Melvill delivers his discourses as a war-horse rushes to the charge. He literally runs, till, for want of breath he can do so no longer. His involuntary pauses are as convenient to his audience as essential to himself. Then it is, that an equally breathless audience, betraying the most convincing signs of having forgotten to breathe, commence their preparation for the next outset with a degree of unanimity and of business-like effort of adjustment, which can hardly fail of disturbing, a little, a stranger’s gravity,”

But we digress. Let us return to the actual quotation which is: “Ye live not for yourselves; ye cannot live for yourselves ; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” It is taken from the sermon on the impact of evil deeds titled “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins” that Melvill delivered on June 12, 1855 at St. Margeret’s Church in London, England. The sermon was published in a collection of his sermons, Melvill’s Golden Lectures for 1855.

Interestingly, Herman Meville (1819-1891) visited London in 1849 and made a point to listen to one of Melvill’s sermons that made quite an impression. In his journal entry for December 16, 1849, Melville wrote: “This morning breakfasted at 10, at the Hotel de Sabloneire (very nice cheap little snuggery being closed on Sundays)  Had a ‘sweet ommelette’ which was delicious. Thence walked to St. Thomas’s Church, Charter House, Goswell Street, to hear my famed namesake (almost) ‘The Reverend H Melvill.’  I had seen him placarded as to deliver a Charity Sermon. The church was crowded–the sermon was admirable (granting the Rev. gentleman’s premises). Indeed he deserves his reputation. I do not think that I hardly ever heard so good a discourse before–that is from an “orthodox” divine.” Despite the impression that Melvill made on Melville, he was not the inspiration for Fr. Mapple that appears in Moby-Dick. According to Melville scholars, Fr. Mapple was based on three individuals: Father E. T. Taylor, Enoch Mudge, and another Methodist minister who preached at Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading: Sermons by Henry Melvill, B.D. edited by the Right Rev. C. Pm McIlvaine, D.D. (1838)
http://melvilliana.blogspot.com/2011/09/finest-thing-herman-melville-never-said.html
http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/sermons/hmpreface.html

 


Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsQuoting famous authors or thinkers is presumably a reflection of one’s erudition. But what it does it say about the speaker, if they don’t even know that the quotation they are using is incorrect — specifically, it is a paraphrase of the actual text. A speaker who actually knows the original text would say, “To paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘methinks the lady doth protest too much'” rather than “To quote Shakespeare…” It doesn’t help that the internet functions like a global version game of telephone, where inaccuracies are disseminated in the time it takes to send a tweet — the twitterings of twits, as it were. Here are some famous misquoted quotes, for those who appreciate the nuances of the actual written words:

Misquote: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
Original quote: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Source: William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600), Act III, Scene II

Misquote: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Original quote: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men.”
Source: Lord John Acton

Misquote: “Blood, sweat, and tears.”
Original quote: “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.”
Source: Winston Churchill, speech to House of Commons, May 13, 1940

Misquote: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Original quote: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
Source: William Congreve, The Mourning Bride (1697), Act III, Scene VIII

Misquote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Original quote: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Source: Edmund Burke, Thoughts in the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), Volume I

Misquote: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Original quote: “James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grow out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Source: Mark Twain, note to a reporter, dated May 1897

Misquote: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.”
Original quote: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.”
Source: Mistakenly attributed to Gandhi. Actual writer was Nicholas Klein, speech to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1918

Misquote: “Money is the root of all evil.”
Original quote: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Source: The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:10

Misquote: “No rest for the wicked.”
Original quote: “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.”
Source: The Bible, Isaiah 15:21

Misquote: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
Original quote: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Source: The Bible, Proverbs 13:24

Misquote: “Pride comes before a fall.”
Original quote: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Source: The Bible, Proverbs 16:18

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Most Common Shakespeare Misquotes
Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

For further reading: Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusions by Andrew Delahunty
http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html

https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/08/13/stages/


Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe quotation “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members” or “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member” is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, Gandhi never said or wrote those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” The source of the quote is supposedly a speech given by Gandhi in 1931; but according to quotation sleuth Ralph Keyes, the words cannot be found in that speech. Nevertheless, this quote is often cited by animal rights organizations and advocates.

It was American writer and novelist Pearl Buck (1892-1973), best known for her novel, The Good Earth (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature that wrote:  “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” The daughter of a missionary, she spent a large part of her life in China. When she returned to America she became a passionate advocate for mixed-race adoption, minority groups, and women’s rights.

Another notable individual who spoke about “the weakest members” was Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965 to 1969. At the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of its government: “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

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Read related posts: Most Common Shakespeare Misquotes
Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

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For further reading: The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes, St. Martin’s Griffin (2006).


The Meaning of “Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?”

atkins-bookshelf-literaturePerhaps one of the best known lines from Shakespeare’s plays is also one of the most misunderstood. In Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks, “O Romeo, Romeo — wherefore art thou Romeo.” To modern audiences, the word “wherefore” is assumed to be a fancy way of saying “where”; thus, Juliet seems to be asking, “Romeo, where are you?” — and perhaps she is reaching for her smartphone to locate him via GPS. In the context of the scene it makes a certain amount of sense, and most people don’t think twice about it. However the word “wherefore” actually means “why.” Shakespeare scholars and lexicographers David and Ben Crystal explain: “The force of the modern where overrides the older meaning., which is an emphatic why. Juliet is asking in frustration: Why are you called Romeo?” So theatergoers can breathe a sigh of relief — Juliet has not lost Romeo so early in the play.

Read related posts: When Was Shakespeare Born?
What Dictionary Did Shakespeare Use?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
The Legacy of Shakespeare
Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?

For further reading: The Shakespeare Miscellany by David and Ben Crystal (2005)


Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsThe quotation, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” appears in hundreds of quotation anthologies in print and on the Internet; it is attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1910) although it is likely he never said it or wrote it. In his research, Barry Popik, an American etymologist and contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and The Yale Book of Quotations, did not find the quotation (or any portions of it) in the sizable Twain corpus. Popik concludes that the quotation originated almost a century after Twain died. The source of the Twain-attributed quotation is found in Taylor Hartman’s book, The Color Code to Strengthen Your Character published in 1999: “The three most significant days in your life are: 1. The day you were born. 2. The day you find out why you were you born. 3. The day you discover how to contribute the gift you were born to give.” Two years later, Robert Miller writes a variation of this in his book Fire in the Deep: “A wise friend once told me that there are two great days in a person’s life: the day you are born and the day you find out why you were born.”

So why is this quotation attributed to Twain? Excellent question. Sharon McCoy — an expert on Twain who teaches American Literature at Emory University, is president of the American Humor Studies Association, and is executive coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle (a scholarly organization) — argues passionately and convincingly that Twain, as a revered, prolific, and multifaceted American author, is simply a magnet for quotations: “Mark Twain has more quotations he didn’t say attributed to him than any other person I’ve ever heard tell of. One of the most recent ones making the rounds of the Internet goes something like this: ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ … [Hundreds] of [websites] all agree on one thing: Mark Twain said it. Go a little further back, and no one attributes it to him — mostly because he never would have said such a thing. He wouldn’t have believed in its truth, and if he did, he would have changed that word ‘important’ to something profane and blasphemous. But almost in spite of himself, Twain is one American writer that many people — and not just academics — have a personal stake in. He means something to them. And every time they find a sentiment that fits their preconception — whether bitingly funny, simply curmudgeonly, or fundamentally humane — the sentiment often gets attributed directly to him. Twain is a slippery figure, hard to see clearly in spite of extensive biographies and autobiographical writings, partly because he created a multifaceted character so many people still want to believe in.”

Read related posts: The Buck Stops Here
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill
Hoist with His Own Petard
The Sword of Damocles
Clothes Makes the Man
Don’t Have a Pot to Piss In

For further reading: humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/if-i-hear-it-again-i-swear-ill-scream-hemingway-huck-finn-and-cheating/
barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/the_two_most_important_days
http://marktwaincircle.org


The Measure of a Civilization

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl Buck, My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1954)

 


Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

This often-used quotation is attributed to Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and philosopher best known for his passionate support of the American Revolution. There is, however, no definitive source that confirms that Burke actually wrote or said this. The fact that there is no single source explains why there are over 80 variations of this quote. According to researcher Martin Porter, ” If it were genuine, it would have one, or possibly two, noteworthy variants at most.”  So how did this quotation come to be attributed to Burke in the first place? The quotation first appeared in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 14th Edition (1968) citing as its source a letter that Burke wrote to William Smith (January 9, 1795); however, that letter does not contain any sentence similar to the cited quotation. An editor for the 15th edition of Bartlett’s claimed that the quotation must be a paraphrase from a speech that Burke delivered to Parliament (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents) on April 23, 1770: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” It’s a bit of a stretch but it is the only reasonable explanation for a quotation that has proliferated on the internet, spawning 80 (and counting) variations.

For futher reading: The Never Said It by Paul Boller and John Geroge, Oxford University Press (1989). http://www.wikiquotes.com. http://tartarus.org/~martin/essays/burkequote.html


Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.

This is a famous misquotation of a phrase used in Winston Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister of Britain to the House of Commons shortly after World War II began. In his speech, delivered on May 13, 1940, Churchill actually used the phrase: “I have nothing to offer but blood and toil, tears and sweat.” Over time, the original phrase was misquoted as “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears” — the word “toil” was dropped and the words “sweat” and “tears” were transposed.

Soon after the speech, it was pointed out to Churchill that Henry James, who published The Bostonians in 1885, used a similar phrase in his book: “In the last resort the whole burden of the human lot came upon them; it pressed upon them far more than on the others, the intolerable load of fate. It was they who sat cramped and chained to receive it; it was they who had done all the waiting and taken all the wounds. The sacrifices, the blood, the tears, the terrors were theirs.” Churchill’s response was that he had never read the book. Although the constructions are similar, Churchill’s phrase has better consonance and whether misquoted or not has survived the test of time.

For further reading: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake, Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul Boller, Jr. and John George, Oxford University Press (1989); The Bostonians by Henry James, Everyman Library (1992).


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