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Common Misquotes

21 Apr. 2022

Some of the most often quoted phrases in our culture are intact total misquotes. From Marie Antoinette to Neil Armstrong, some of history’s best lines are in fact completely wrong. Let’s set the record straight and address history’s biggest misquotes.

1. Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat cake”

Undoubtedly one of history’s best-known lines, this quote is attributed to the ill-fated French queen, Marie Antoinette. The story goes that, some time around 1789, the queen was informed of the plight of her subjects starving on account of a lack of bread. In response, Marie Antoinette is famed to have haughtily replied “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” - “Let them eat cake.”

With this detached response, the queen made herself a figure of hatred among an increasingly frustrated public. This hatred of the monarchy’s decadence and disregard for the common person would eventually boil over until it caused the queen and her husband to lose their hands during the French Revolution just a few short years later.

Historians by and large refute this story, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the “Let them eat cake” story is known to have been floating around years in advance of Marie Antoinette’s supposed misstep. The quote was originally rumoured to have been said by Marie-Thérese, a princess from Spain who married King Louis XIV in the 17th century. She is reported to have suggested that the French people eat “la croute de pate” (the crust of the plate), and several other royal figures were associated with the quote before it landed in the mouth of Marie Antoinette.

Regardless of whether Marie Antoinette said these famous words or not, she most certainly suffered for it!

2. Neil Armstrong: One small step for man…

Some of the most famous words ever uttered, and the first uttered as man first walked on extra-terrestrial soil, are both a misquote, and utter nonsense. The famous quote “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was heard by billions around the world as Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon’s surface back in 1969.

However, in reality, it makes zero sense grammatically speaking. Armstrong has since explained that the line was intended to be “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” So why has the whole world been butchering these epic lines for 50 years? Simply put, the radio transmission experienced interference at just the wrong moment, and etched this case of poor grammar and misquotation into the history books forever.

3. Sherlock Holmes: Elementary, my dear Watson

Even fictional characters cannot escape the danger of being misquoted forever. Despite being by far the most famous quote attached to the legendary detective - Sherlock Holmes never actually says the line “Elementary, my dear Watson” throughout any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novels.

While at one point, Watson exclaims “Excellent!”, to which Sherlock replies, “Elementary.” The line itself never exists as a stand alone quote. TV and movies featuring Sherlock Holmes, however, have since put the words in the mouth of the world’s most famous sleuth.

4. John Swigert: Houston, we have a problem

It was during 1970’s Apollo 13 mission that astronaut John Swigert uttered this line that would forever become a misquote. While in flight, an explosion occurred onboard, to which John Swigert uttered the words “OK, Houston; we’ve had a problem here.”

Because of time, misquotation, and the movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, the quote has since been misattributed to fellow astronaut Commander Jim Lovell, as “Houston, we have a problem.”

5. Mark Twain: The only two certainties in life are death and taxes

This is not so much a case of a misquotation, rather a case of misattribution. While this famous quip about life’s inevitabilities is often attached to American literary giant Mark Twain, he in fact was not its author. The first instance of the line can be found in Edward Ward’s 1724 “Dancing Devils”, in which he wrote: “Death and Taxes, they are certain.”And even further back than that, Christopher Bullock wrote the line “‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” In his 1716 “Cobbler of Preston.” While Mark Twain may have written many an iconic line, this was not one of them.

6. George Washington: I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree

This line is a staple in the retelling of the story of the founding fathers, even though it was never actually said by George Washington. The story first appeared in the 1800s in a book by Washington’s biographer Parson Weems, and has been falsely quoted ever since - most likely to add an air of mythical greatness to the founding father.

So next time you hear someone toss out one of these major misquotes, you can enjoy being a know-it-all and giving them the true story!

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