Who Didn’t Say That? Ten Surprising Misattributed Quotations

You may be surprised to learn how many famous quotations are misattributed.

Posted Jul 11, 2013

Public Domain
Abraham Lincoln
Source: Public Domain

“Quotation: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

In my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, I initially quoted the Buddha as saying, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal and hoping someone else will get burned.” I’ve been familiar with the Buddha’s teachings for over 20 years and had heard that quotation so many times that when I first added it to the manuscript, I didn’t bother to check its source.

Then I began to notice on the internet how many quotations attributed to the Buddha were nowhere to be found in the Pali Canon (the original written record of his teachings). So I decided to check the source for the “hot coal” quote and, sure enough, the Buddha never said it. What he did say was this: “When we direct anger at another, it comes right back to us—like fine dust thrown against the wind.” So I edited the manuscript: out came coal; in went dust.

This experience piqued my interest in misattributed quotations. I did some research, and here are my most surprising finds:

“Let them eat cake.” —Marie Antoinette

There’s no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said this. The closest we can come is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography, Confessions, written in 1770 (years before Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles from her native Austria). In Confessions, he made a reference to a thoughtless princess who, “on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat pastry!’”

“I cannot tell a lie.” —George Washington

We all know the story of wee George cutting down a cherry tree and how, when asked by his father who did it, George replied: “I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree.” Too bad this never happened. It was put into a biography of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, a biographer with a penchant for making his subjects appear to be saintly. Think about how many parents, after catching their little ones in a lie, have used this “father-of-our-country” morality tale to lecture them about the importance of telling the truth!

“Elementary my dear Watson.” —Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes never said this to Dr. Watson. The phrase is from P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist.

“Walk softly and carry a big stick.” —Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt did say this but, contrary to popular belief, he didn’t say it first. It’s an old African proverb. Whenever I hear the quotation, I think about the story told by Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg. Sharon is known by many as the metta or lovingkindness master. Many years ago, she was in a rickshaw in Calcutta when a stranger reached in and tried to pull her out. Her friend managed to push the man away and they escaped unharmed. When she told her teacher, Munindra-ji, about the incident, he said to her: “Why, Sharon, you should have hit him with your umbrella—using all the lovingkindness you could muster!” (Readers of How to Be Sick will remember the story in the chapter titled, “Who Is Sick?” about an elderly and frail Munindra-ji patiently waiting at the stifling hot train station.)

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” —Mark Twain

I’ve always loved this quotation because I know how cold a summer's day can be in San Francisco. My husband and I used to drive from the Sacramento area to his parents' house in The City (as Northern Californians call it). It would be over 100 degrees (F) in the Central Valley and so I’d wear a sundress and he would wear a T-shirt. We’d get to San Francisco and it would be so cold that if we wanted to go outside, we’d have to bundle up in his parents’ jackets.

Although Mark Twain never said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” he did say, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” I suppose over the years, people decided that someone who’d say the latter would say the former.

“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” —Dr. Seuss

A while back, this lovely sentiment started showing up on the social media sites as yet another quotable gem from Dr. Seuss. I like to post his quotations myself, but have learned to investigate their source first. My research revealed that no one can find this in any Dr. Seuss book!

It turns out that this quotation has been in circulation for many years. It’s shown up many places, my favorite being a 1974 poem by George Ludcke that was published in the Wall Street Journal:

Hostesses who fret about

Who sits where will find

That those who mind don’t matter

And those who matter don’t mind.

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” —Virginia Woolf

I found this quotation on several websites and thought it would fit perfectly at the beginning of one of the chapters in How to Wake Up. But when I went to check its accuracy, it turned out to be words that author Michael Cunningham had put into Virginia Woolf’s mouth in his book, The Hours. Then he had Nicole Kidman speak them in the movie of the same name when she played Woolf. Those words are now commonly attributed to Woolf, but she never said them.

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” —Abraham Lincoln

It sure sounds like Lincoln, but there’s no proof he said it. Great line anyway.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” —Neil Armstrong upon becoming the first person to step on the moon.

Armstrong actually said: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The “a” was lost in the static. Even though the newspapers and wire services ran the correction after Armstrong explained what he really said, it’s the incorrect version that has gone down in history. I prefer Armstrong’s actual words because of the contrast he draws between what one person can do and what all of humankind can do.

“Every human being is the author of his own health or disease.” —The Buddha                       

I don’t like this quotation, yet I’m always coming across it on the internet. It’s even in a book I own on chronic illness!

One reason the quotation bothers me is that it’s not consistent with a passage in the Pali Canon where the Buddha asks his followers to reflect: “I am subject to illness. I have not gone beyond illness.” It also doesn’t comport with other stories in the Canon that relate what a powerful experience it was for the Buddha-to-be when, as a young man, he realized that everyone is subject to illness, old age, and death. It’s what inspired him to investigate mental suffering and how we might alleviate it.

I found a wonderful website, www.fakebuddhaquotes.com. It confirms that the Buddha never said this. The source of the quotation is Swami Sivananda (1887-1963), the founder of The Divine Life Society and author of over 200 books on yoga, Vedanta, and a variety of other subjects.

In page 202 of his Bliss Divine, he wrote:

Every human being is the author of his own health or disease. Disease is the result of disobedience to the immutable laws of health that govern life.

And there you have it. Not the Buddha. I cannot claim to understand the Swami’s words but am open to having them interpreted for me. As I understand the human condition, all of us are subject to disease, as well as injury and aging. The question is whether we can meet these challenges with equanimity, meaning with mindful awareness that life will inevitably be a mixture of ups and downs and that peace is to be found by riding both waves with an evenness of temper and calmness of mind.

© 2013 Toni Bernhard  Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books: 

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition) 2018

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.

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