10 Historical Quotes You’ve Probably Been Getting Wrong

10 Historical Quotes You’ve Probably Been Getting Wrong

“Houston, we have a sucker born every minute”

Oftentimes, some of the most well-known people from history leave behind little pearls of wisdom in the form of succinct quotes that get repeated enough times to become part of modern culture and still be relevant decades, even centuries after they were first uttered. However, the problem is that many of these famous quotes get a bit distorted through the years and, in some cases, were never actually spoken.

1. “The British are coming!” – Paul Revere

Paul Revere statue

Photo Credit: Ken Lund via Flickr

Paul Revere’s famous ride wasn’t really that big of a deal when it took place and it certainly didn’t turn Paul Revere into a patriotic icon (it wasn’t even mentioned at his eulogy). All of this happened long after his death when a poet by the name of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his epic poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” and completely sensationalized the event. However, he didn’t come up with the line either (you can read the poem here).

We can be certain that Revere never said “the British are coming” for several reasons. For starters, they were all British. Colonial America was still part of the British Empire so all citizens were still, technically, British and many of them were loyal to the Crown. If he shouted anything, he might have shouted “the Regulars are coming” since that was their name for British soldiers. However, he probably didn’t shout anything since this was supposed to be a secretive mission and stealth was key!

2. “Money is the root of all evil.” – The Bible

This one is pretty close to the actual quote from the New Testament from the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy. The line is 1 Timothy 6:10 and it actually says that the “love of money is a root of all sorts of evil”.

3. “Houston, we have a problem.” – Commander Jim Lovell

NASA Apollo 11

It’s likely that most people don’t know who this quote is attributed to, but they still heard of it. It’s synonymous with NASA and space exploration. Those who do know it probably get it wrong because they heard it in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13”. It was the tagline. However, in it the line is spoken by Tom Hanks who plays the lead character, Jim Lovell. In reality, the line was spoken by fellow crew member Jack Swigert. While we’re at it, the line is also a little wrong – what he actually said was “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

4. “The ends justify the means.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

This is the line that basically defines the consequentialism movement and it is attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote it in his masterpiece The Prince. Except that he didn’t. While Machiavelli’s writing clearly embodies the meaning of the phrase, he never actually says it. Closest he gets is a line that states that “one judges by the result”. Actually, similar sayings have been attributed ever since ancient times. The earliest quote which is very similar to the famous line is attributed to Sophocles who says that “the end excuses any evil”.

5. “There’s a sucker born every minute.” – P.T. Barnum


This was supposedly the philosophy that famous showman P.T. Barnum had regarding the public. In reality, though, the quote belongs to one of Barnum’s competitors called David Hannum. Hannum was the man who exhibited the famous Cardiff Giant (believing it to be real). He was making huge sums of money off it so, naturally, Barnum wanted it. After his offer to buy it was refused, Barnum simply made another giant statue and claimed that it was the real deal while Hannum’s was a fake. When many people believed the story and went to see Barnum’s giant, Hannum used that famous quote to refer to the people who were fooled by the fake giant, unaware at the time that his own Cardiff Giant was also a hoax.

6. “Nice guys finish last.” – Leo Durocher

This quote is attributed to baseball great Leo Durocher who supposedly said it in 1946 when he was coaching the Brooklyn Dodgers as a shot towards their rivals, the New York Giants and their manager Mel Ott.  However, he actually gave a longer speech concerning “nice guys”, eventually concluding that “the nice guys are all over there, in seventh place”. Afterwards, this speech was reprinted in various sports columns and, by this time, “seventh place” was replaced with “last place” and, eventually, history whittled the speech down to the catchy one-liner we know today.

7. “Let them eat cake.” – Marie Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette_dit_«_à_la_Rose featured

The full quote should be “if they have no bread, let them eat cake”. This is attributed to Queen of France Marie Antoinette as a way of showing how disconnected and uncaring the royals were to the plights of the poor. However, there are a few problems with the line. For starters, it was actually anti-royalty propaganda, generally attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who mentions it in his “Confessions”, but only attributes it to a “great princess”, not Marie Antoinette specifically. Furthermore, if we want to be more accurate, the line actually is “let them eat brioche”, which doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

8. “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

The exact phrasing of the quote has changed over the years, but the story remained the same. Supposedly, Twain had fell gravely ill and various papers were reporting that he was dying. Eventually, one paper printed an obituary which led to Twain penning a letter where he states that he is still alive and well and that the reports of his death were exaggerated. Another version of the story says that actually another man, James Ross Clemens, a cousin of Mark Twain, fell ill. It’s not known how people came to believe that it was Twain himself. Anyway, a reported stopped by his home and this is when Twain supposedly said that “the report of my death was an exaggeration”.

9. “Et tu, Brute?” – Julius Caesar

Caesar assassination featured

“You, too, Brutus?” has become the standard line when dealing with a shocking betrayal. Unsurprisingly, we don’t actually know what Caesar’s last words were. When Roman historian Suetonius wrote about the event over 150 years after it took place, he mentions a Greek phrase which means something along the lines of “You, too, child?”. Some modern historians argue that, if Caesar were to say something similar to this, it would have been more of a threat or ominous foreboding instead of shock as if to say “You’re next”. It was Shakespeare who made the line famous in his play Julius Caesar.

Bonus Fact: It’s rare that one event creates two memorable (mis)quotes but, in this case, Brutus is also reported to have said “Sic semper tyrannis” while attacking Caesar. It’s unlikely that he actually said it, but the phrase became iconic nonetheless. It means “thus always to tyrants”, although oftentimes it is mistranslated as “death to tyrants”. It became even more infamous when John Wilkes Booth said it when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

10. “Now is the winter of our discontent” – William Shakespeare

This is the famous beginning of Richard III and, for once, it’s actually right, word for word. However, we still have a problem – the meaning. When we use it, we only say “now is the winter of our discontent” to refer to a time of sadness or hardship. However, the full line is actually “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” which really means the exact opposite. It is meant to suggest that the bad times have passed and the good times are ahead.