“I really didn’t say everything I said” — Yogi Berra (probably)
You see it all the time: A meme featuring some famous quote imposed over the image of an important figure. Be it inspirational quotes by Nelson Mandela, pithy prose by Benjamin Franklin or some bigoted remark by Donald Trump, people generally believe what they read and move on. But quotes are wrongly attributed all the time, and for a number of reasons.
“Misquotations occur due to a variety of error mechanisms,” explains Garson O’Toole, author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That. O’Toole — better known as the “Quote Investigator” — explains that the major reasons are:
- Real-world proximity, where someone gets credit for a quote because they were associated with the quote’s true author in real life
- When the author and the accredited have similar names
- Historical fiction, when someone gets credit for a quote said in a movie where they’re portrayed
- A capture, which is where a famous person utters an existing quote, and is later given credit for it
- There are also those who O’Toole refers to as hosts: People who, by virtue of being famous, often have quotes randomly assigned to them (think Lincoln, Einstein or Twain)
- Finally, there’s outright concoctions, which can be either intentional or accidental
With a little help from Google — and the Quote Investigator himself — we did some digging to find some of the most widely used bullshit quotes.
The Quote: “I cannot tell a lie.”
Who Allegedly Said It: George Washington
Where It Came From: Following Washington’s death in 1799, Americans clamored to know more about their fallen founding father. Biographer Mason Locke Weems was happy to fill the void, even if it included outright fabrication. Being a die-hard Federalist, Weems wanted to show his hero in the best possible light. And so, in his biography The Life of George Washington, he told the story of how a young Washington admitted to chopping down a cherry tree by also admitting that he couldn’t stray from the truth.
Error Mechanism: This was a total concoction by Weems that still persists today. Surprisingly, this story didn’t even appear until the book’s fifth edition in 1806.
The Quote: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Abraham Lincoln
Where It Came From: While this quote was popularized in 1952 by presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, it probably first appeared in a 1947 book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D., though it may have also been written by a copywriter helping him sell the book. Embarrassingly, this fake quote by the first Republican president was posted by the Republican National Committee marking Lincoln’s 208th birthday in 2017. In a move that should surprise absolutely no one, Donald Trump also shared the fake quote.
Error Mechanism: It seems the Great Emancipator was made the host for this quote simply by virtue of being Lincoln.
The Quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Winston Churchill
Where it Came From: Churchill probably “never spoke it or wrote it,” says O’Toole. It appears that this quote came from a speech by the Mayor of Carlisle, England, in 1919. Though similar quotes existed beforehand, this is the first known occurrence in this phrasing.
Error Mechanism: Despite the fact that both the Mayor of Carlisle and Churchill were early-20th-century British dudes, this seems to be a case where Churchill was just randomly assigned as a host for this quote, much like the bulk of the quotes about alcohol that are also attributed to him.
The Quote: “The main thing is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Groucho Marx (or George Burns)
Where It Came From: “This quip fits the persona of Marx, but I was unable to find any substantive evidence that he ever employed it,” says O’Toole. As for Burns, he included a version of it in a memoir written in 1980, but it was phrased differently and it certainly existed before that. The earliest known quote resembling this phrase was in 1962, when actress Celeste Holm claimed she heard the quote from another actor, but didn’t say who. So, it remains anonymous, but it most likely wasn’t Marx or Burns.
Error Mechanism: While this quote certainly feels like Marx, it seems he’s just a host for it. As for Burns, this is a good example of a capture, as he didn’t originate the quote, but he did help to popularize it.
The Quote: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Marilyn Monroe
Where It Came From: This quote was first attributed to Monroe in a book published in 2002, but it originated in 1976, 14 years after Monroe died. Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first wrote it in a journal known as the American Quarterly. Interestingly, Ulrich employed it in a different context. Instead of encouraging women to “misbehave,” she was simply observing that the historical record neglected the lives of ordinary women throughout history.
Error Mechanism: Since Monroe “was a path breaking superstar,” explains O’Toole, “this quotation fit the popular perception of her character,” which is why she was made a host for it.
The Quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Albert Einstein
Where It Came From: According to O’Toole, “One important tool for judging Einstein-attributed quotations is the comprehensive, 578-page compilation The Ultimate Quotable Einstein by Princeton University Press.” This phrase does appear in the book, but in the chapter entitled “Misattributed to Einstein.” It seems the quote’s true origins can be found in a 1981 pamphlet printed by Narcotics Anonymous. The full original quote is, “The price may seem higher for the addict who prostitutes for a fix than it is for the addict who merely lies to a doctor, but ultimately, they both pay with their lives. Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
Error Mechanism: Unsurprisingly, Einstein is one of the more popular hosts, as quotes are often misattributed to him.
The Quote: “I’d love to, but you’ll have to remove that damn cat.”
Who Allegedly Said It: Johnny Carson
Where It Came From: As the story goes, on an episode of the Tonight Show a female sex symbol (either Zsa Zsa Gabor, Raquel Welch, Ann-Margret or someone else, depending who tells the story) appeared on the show with a cat on their lap. At some point, the sex symbol says to Carson, “Would you like to pet my pussy?” To which Carson replies, “I’d love to, but you’ll have to remove that damn cat.”
This is one of the most popular events in Tonight Show history. The only problem is it never actually happened.
Myth-busting site Snopes speculates that it must have somehow started as a joke, and it just rang so true that many people even claim they were watching on the night the event happened. It most certainly didn’t, though: The show was always pre-taped, so there’s no way a joke like that could’ve made it past the censors. In addition, Carson even addressed the issue himself in 1996. Responding to a fan, he wrote, “It never happened. I rather wish it had happened because it’s a funny story, but like most urban legends, it keeps reinventing itself year after year.”
Error Mechanism: In O’Toole’s terminology this would probably be described as a case of concoction — or maybe even Carson being a host — but in reality it’s a fascinating case of widespread “manufactured memory,” as so many people swear to have seen it.