10 Famous Misquotes from History | History Hit

10 Famous Misquotes from History

Dan Snow

26 Oct 2021
Winston Churchill delivering a speech during his general election campaign, 27 June 1945.
Image Credit: Imperial War Museum / Public Domain

Most of history’s most famous expressions and sayings were never actually said. Usually, the expression was reported, enhanced or made up by a journalist or storyteller and their version has stuck with us.

Here are the 10 that always blow my mind.

1. “Et tu, Brute?” – Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar did not say “et tu, Brute?” as he was being stabbed by a gang of assassins. It was made up by William Shakespeare, who may have borrowed it from an earlier playwright.

The Roman historian Suetonius writes that Caesar said nothing. Others claim he spat out the Greek phrase kai su, teknon which means roughly, “you too, young man.”

2. “Houston, we have a problem” – Jack Swigert

Perhaps it was Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, but the expression “Houston, we’ve got a problem” is used so often that it’s probable that at any one point in time someone on earth is saying it. Maybe.

Anyway, in the film, the spaceship’s commander Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, issues the famous line. But in reality Jack Swigert, the Command Module Pilot from Apollo 13, called Mission Control and said, “okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

3. “Let them eat cake!” – Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette has become the ultimate meme. The go-to personification for an out-of-touch, super-wealthy idiot who totally fails to understand the rage and discontent of the people who are hungry, angry and mobilised.

As she watched a massive crowd of protestors from a palace window, she is supposed to have said, “let them eat cake.” Her reputation was sealed.

Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, in the gardens of the Petit Trianon

Image Credit: Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Problem is, she never said this—the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau did. Even better, he was not even talking about Marie Antoinette or cake for that matter. He wrote a book before the French Revolution even began in which an anonymous ‘great princess’ says of the hungry, “let them eat brioche!”

4. “I see no ships” – Admiral Horatio Nelson

Admiral Horatio Nelson famously ignored a signal from the flagship of his commanding officer during his victory over the Danish navy at the Battle of Copenhagen. But he did not say, “I see no ships.”

Instead, he said, “I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.” Nelson did however say, “kiss me, Hardy”, on his death bed at the Battle of Trafalgar a couple of years later.

5. “We are not amused” – Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria has a bad rep. In the popular imagination, she is thought of as the grumpy, round granny who never got over the death of her beloved husband – a bit of a fun-free zone who epitomises the stuffy era over which she presided.

This is, like all two-dimensional characterisations, obviously unfair. She was as varied and full of surprises and contradictions as any of us. And her diaries are pretty racey, but that’s another story.

What matters here is that Queen Victoria almost certainly never said “we are not amused.” According to her granddaughter, in fact, Victoria herself insisted that she had never said this. It was seemingly made up by a courtier who said she heard the story from someone at Windsor Castle.

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6. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong

To be fair, the audio from Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon is as patchy as you would expect a signal broadcast across a quarter of a million miles of empty space in the 1960s to be. That has helped to muddle the memory of the exact words that he spoke as he stepped onto the surface of another celestial object.

We all quote, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” but it doesn’t actually make sense. It’s tautological, man and mankind are synonyms. In fact, he said, “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

7. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” – Henry Morton Stanley

Explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley did indeed go looking for Dr. David Livingstone, history’s most useless missionary, after he had disappeared in east Africa. After a terrible 700 mile trek, in which many of his porters were killed by tropical diseases, Stanley found Livingstone living in Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika, in modern Tanzania.

Stanley later claimed that he held out his hand and said, in an appropriately clipped, detached Victorian manner, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Neither of the men mentions it in accounts at the time and Stanley probably made it up later, to make himself sound cool.

8. “We shall fight them on the beaches” – Winston Churchill

It is Winston Churchill’s signature line, the ultimate roar of defiance in the face of the Nazi war machine, one of the greatest expressions of resolution in history. But he didn’t exactly say, “We shall fight them on the beaches” in the summer of 1940.

He did say, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

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9. “Walk softly but carry a big stick” – Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt helped to reshape the Americas as European colonial powers retreated in the face of independence movements and the growing power of the economically vibrant USA. He is famous for using the expression, “walk softly but carry a big stick,” which he actually never used.

But he was fond of the expression, “speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far.” He used it in relation to New York politics, and then he used it again as Vice President when commenting on the American role in the world.

Four days after using the line in Minnesota, President William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt was sworn in, and it was now to be seen whether he would turn these words into actions.

President Theodore Roosevelt delivering a speech in Concord, New Hampshire. 28 August 1902.

Image Credit: SMU Central University Libraries / Public Domain

10. “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes” – Mark Twain

There comes a time in all of our lives when we throw down the old Mark Twain quote, “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” We think it makes us sound worldly-wise, cynical about government and, most importantly, witty.

But maybe the joke is on us, because Mark Twain never said this. It’s also not true, there are many other certainties, like the fact that we will end up misattributing fake historical sayings throughout our lives.

Two far less famous writers in the 18th century said something similar to the famed quote oft attributed to Twain. Christopher Bullock, for example, wrote in 1716, “tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes,” surprisingly ignoring the certainty of renewed Jacobite attempts to regain the throne. And Edward Ward wrote in 1724, “death and taxes, they are certain.”

Bonus: “May the force be with you” – Obi-Wan Kenobi

And here’s a bonus misquote. Many oft-quoted lines from movies are wrong. But my particular favourite is that Alec Guinness, aka Obi-Wan Kenobi, never says “may the force be with you” in the original Star Wars movies.

Tags: Horatio Nelson Julius Caesar Marie Antoinette Queen Victoria Winston Churchill

Dan Snow