5 famous misquotes from literature

I love quotes, particularly ones which have entered the English language; but what I love even more are misquotes. You learn a lot about history and language, and it’s fun finding out where they’ve come from. I did a post before on famous movie misquotes, so these are some of my favourites from literature.

5) “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar).

Actual quote: The quote from Shakespeare’s play is correct, but it’s often incorrectly attributed to Julius Caesar; it’s Mark Antony who says it, delivering his eulogy after Caesar’s assassination by Brutus and the conspirators.

4) “I must go down to the sea again.”
John Masefield (Sea Fever).
Actual quote: The original version of Sea Fever read “I must down to the seas again” but in later editions was changed to either “go” or “sea” or both.

3) “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
William Congreve (The Mourning Bride).
Actual quote: The quote comes from the closing line of Act III: “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d/Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.” The first line of Act I is also often misquoted: “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast” (not beast).

2) “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).
Actual quote: The line from Coleridge’s poem should read “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It is also apparently one of the most plagiarised lines, in one competition alone featuring in more than 200 submissions.

1) “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes).
Actual quote: Although Holmes often used “elementary“, the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” doesn’t appear in any of Conan Doyle’s stories; the closest is an exchange in The Adventure Of The Crooked Man: “Excellent!” I cried “Elementary.” said he. Its first appearance is at the end of the 1929 film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

15 thoughts on “5 famous misquotes from literature

  1. There’s is a contemporary misquoting that really gets me. It was originally written by Marianne Williamson in, “A Return To Love” – but since Nelson Mandela used it in his acceptance speech (without giving credit to her), many people quote him as the originator! πŸ™‚ It’s a beautiful piece – I won’t take up too much space by writing it all here, but you can find it here:

    CJ: Hi Grace, thanks for the link. It’s a beautiful prayer and you’re right, I Googled the first line + Mandela and came up with 60,000 hits! Amazing how fast these misquotes spread. πŸ˜‰

    I’m not bothered that people confuse them (sometimes the changed versions sound just as good), it’s more that I’m fascinated by how the differences have come about. It’s almost like it’s a part of language evolving – the changes to The Mourning Bride, for instance, show how our language has become more relaxed and less formal over the last 3 centuries. I find that really interesting. πŸ™‚

  2. it kind of feels funny! i um wanted to do something “similar” – misheard lyrics! when things are amiss, it’s a lot of fun, probably because it helps us see at things from a different amgle than how it was originally meant to! πŸ˜€

    CJ: It does feel funny – particularly if you’ve been using some of them! Yeah, I’ll admit it; I used to think it was “Elementary, my dear Watson”. It was so much more fun! πŸ˜›

    Misheard lyrics would be a good one; you should definitely do it! I know one of the most famous is from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” – a lot of people thought “while I kiss the sky” was “kiss this guy”. Sacrilege! (Although Hendrix did goof around a lot, so maybe he did say it a couple of times.) πŸ˜‰

  3. The Holmes one doesn’t bother me. It should, I’m usually a stickler for correct quotes (and can’t abide people saying “without further adieu”), but it never feels like a misquote to me – or a quote at all (though I suppose it is an accurate quote from the movie?).

    It feels, when people say it, that they are entering into the spirit of the books – speaking in character, as it were. And people entering into the spirit of books is usually to be encouraged.

    Play it again, Sam…

    CJ: Hi Kathleen, thanks for the comment. I know what you mean about the Sherlock Holmes one; I’m a bit torn on it as well. Is it really a misquote? You can definitely make a case that they’re just quoting the movie. And unlike the other quotes, it does capture the spirit of the books, which is very important these days.

    The reason I consider it a misquote above the others is because it’s entered the English language; it’s almost become its own phrase and people use it who have never even read the books. It’s taken on a life of its own when a lot of people don’t even know what they’re referencing! But that’s really a testament to the character, so I can see it both ways. πŸ˜‰

    In the end I just love language and I’m fascinated by tracing where these kind of quotes come from. And anything that gets people thinking about their favourite writers is good with me! πŸ˜€

  4. One of my favorite misquotations is attributed (and correctly) to Walt Kelly. In a forward to The Pogo Papers he wrote “Resolve, then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tiny blasts of tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.” This came to be misquoted as “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” in which form Walt Kelly retrieved it and used it as a bit of dialog and as a book title. And so the former misquotation is made genuine.

    Also, the correct version of the line from Congreve’s The Mourning Bride is “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast”–not “hath” and not “beast”. (http://books.google.com/books?id=U3ACAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage#PPA9,M1)

    CJ: I’d heard that about Kelly as well. I can’t think of many other examples where an author has actually adopted a misquote and used it to his advantage like that. Perhaps it’s a good way to respond.

    You’re right about Congreve’s quote as well; that was a typing mistake on my part, rather than a factual error! I should have proofread it first. πŸ˜‰

  5. It might be worth to point out that Julius Caesar’s famous quote “Et tu, Brute?” is actually from Shakespeare’s play and does not have any proven historical basis as many believe (and as I believed not too long ago).

    Impressive literary knowledge there, especially with the Sherlock Holmes books.

    CJ: Hi Lior, thanks for the comment. That’s a good point about Julius Caesar; a lot of the misconceptions people have come from confusing the play with history, but it’s understandable. We study the play but we only have bits and pieces from history. Plus it’s great drama. πŸ˜‰

    I knew the Sherlock Holmes’ one through my love of the books, but a couple like Coleridge’s I picked up from various quote books I have. I love literature and looking at the history behind classic works, so I find these kinds of comparisons really interesting. Glad you found it interesting too. πŸ˜›

  6. Here’s another fun mistake in John Keats: On First Looking into Chapmans’s Homer.
    John Keats compares his experience when reading Chapman’s Homer for the first time to that of the famous spanish explorer Hernan Cortez when seeing the Pacific. In fact, it wasn’t Cortez who first saw the Pacific but was Vasco Nunez de Balboa, another spanish explorer of the 1500s.

    CJ: That’s another good one. I suppose more of an error than a misquote but not the sort of thing you’d expect from someone like John Keats! Thanks for stopping by. πŸ˜‰

  7. Mandela never used the Williamsom quote in his address..that is part of the myth. She even said so herself.

    CJ: You’re right, Greg, I didn’t think to check it out further after Grace’s comment, but I had a look on Wikipedia and it was never in Mandella’s speech. Thanks for pointing it out.

  8. I always felt that there was some mistake, or something missing from the quote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, and assumed that maybe “Hell hath no fury like a woman s p u r n ed,” was more to the point – a woman’s advances rejected by a man admired would move any woman more like to a pure fury than would simply being scorned. But, I was mistaken; but not on this last point, I again maintain.. And I was therefore misquoting a misquote when I once wrote in a piece, “… Hell hath no fury like a woman spurned, and what else can we do for those who fall into anger but spurn and scrorn for their lack of control, their freedom from the constraints of themselves and the world around. Anger is unbecoming; but it is, nevertheless, essential …” It went on.

    Nevertheless, to another matter, just a word to Kathleen (mail number 3, above):
    “Play it again, Sam.” , with which you ended your missive is itself a misquote. Bogart merely said, “Play it, Sam”, nor it again uttered.
    If you can intend a misquote of a quote (or even a misquote of a misquote, as I did) language can retain its liveliness, and not descend into cliche. The problem then remains, is the misquote left as just plain corny, and awful to word and manner? Cheers to you all, I enjoyed reading this page.

    CJ: Glad you enjoyed the post, Dean. I can see what you mean about “spurned”; that would make more sense in a literal way but I suppose Congreve was taking some liberties as it follows a more free-flowing and relaxed structure. I’d be interested to know where you got the “spurned” misquote from; that’s a lengthy misquote considering it sounds quite unlike it.

    And you’re right, it is “Play it, Sam”. It is interesting, how writers try to show intention without resorting to clichΓ©… it’s not easy. Perhaps that’s what separates good writers from great ones. But in this case I think Kathleen was just joking. πŸ˜‰

  9. Although Nelson Mandela is cited as having used Marianne Williamson’s words, apparently he never did so. Numerous websites such as Snopes.com track the who myth.

    CJ: Thanks Les, I didn’t know that. Interesting!

  10. Reblogged this on Squeaky Lemur Mama and commented:
    So I got asked tonight where the quote “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” came from, and instantly my mind went to Shakespeare. Oops. Bad English teacher! Here’s a couple I found on a blog that are quite fun/informative!

    CJ: Thanks for reblogging! Glad you enjoyed the post. πŸ™‚

  11. do we have any other quotes related to water???

    CJ: No sorry, I don’t. I might do another of these posts at some stage though so I might find some more then. πŸ™‚

  12. Hello, CJ. I just came across this post and your blog this morning as I was sitting on the couch having my first cup of coffee. I turned on my computer and the first thing I wanted to do was find the source of the quote/misquote of “Hell hath no fury…”, things a writer and language lover does with their free time in the morning, I guess. I appreciate your thoughts. Made me ponder. In the end, I think it doesn’t matter if the wording of the quote shifts over time. The wonderful and amazing thing is that the essence of the quote lingers over centuries, becoming a linguistic icon. A true immortality, whether or not the writer’s name is remembered.

    On a curious side note, I was raised steeped in the King Jame’s

    1. Hi PL, thanks so much for your comment! It’s always great hearing from another writer. πŸ™‚

      I agree as well, while it’s interesting tracing their origins, in the end it doesn’t really matter that they’re misquotes… time gives them a life and a power all their own and that’s really fascinating when you think about it. It says an awful lot about modern language and how it’s always evolving and taking on different meanings.

      I wonder if in the future people will be doing the same from some of our stories now? Or perhaps our digital age might make misquotes less likely in the future. I hope not. Perfection would be kind of sad I think.

      Thanks again for your comment and for stopping by. Was there more to your comment, by the way? It looked like the end might have been cut off.

Leave a Reply