Commonly misattributed quotations abound more than ever before, now that they can be shared so easily on social media. Aphorisms, maxims, sententiae, and inspirational or witty quotations often become associated with public figures or well-known writers who never said or wrote them. And these misattributions can be surprisingly tenacious.1 In this post I examine five commonly misattributed quotations and their origins.
1. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.”
This quotation and versions like it have been attributed to Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and many others. Perhaps the most commonly cited candidate for authorship is Twain (pictured above). But as the website Quote Investigator notes, the earliest attribution to Twain was in 1919, nine years after he died. Versions of this idea have a long history, but the one I’ve quoted, involving truth putting its shoes on, appears to have originated in several publications in the 1820s without attribution (“Lie”). And so the attribution of this particular “quotation” to any well-known individual is an example of what the quotation describes: a lie that has traveled faster than the truth.
2. “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
This quotation is commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde, but there’s no evidence he ever wrote or said it. As Quote Investigator reveals, the earliest quotation that even resembles this one is from 1967 in the journal The Hudson Review. And the earliest use of the exact quotation is likely from 1999 on Usenet, where it appeared unattributed (“Be Yourself”). At some point in its journey from Usenet to the wider Internet and the nondigital world beyond, this quotation was superglued to Wilde’s name.
3. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”
This quotation is regularly misattributed to Mark Twain on social media. According to the Center for Mark Twain Studies, the quotation moved to social media after becoming a commonly cited aphorism among newspaper columnists around 2007. The center notes the irony that Twain might have appreciated: “newspaper writers writing in newspapers about the unreliability of newspaper writing and citing an unreliable source to testify to that unreliability” (“Apocryphal Twain”).
4. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Albert Einstein often gets the credit for this saying, but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that he never actually said it. This misattributed quotation has been well documented: it appears to have originated around 1980 in literature published by Narcotics Anonymous (Becker; “Insanity”).
5. “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”
I recently saw this quotation on a bookmark, which attributed it to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I was intrigued. A Google search for this quotation turned up hundreds if not thousands of sites also attributing it to Nietzsche. But I couldn’t find any evidence that he actually said it. And none of the sites I saw in the search listed the work in which this quotation supposedly appears. Since most of Nietzsche’s works are available online, in translation, and for free, I pulled up every one I could find and searched for the quotation. I didn’t find the quotation, and I began to doubt the credibility of my bookmark.
Searching Google Books eventually revealed what I think is likely the source of this misattribution. The quotation appeared in 2011 in the book Inkspell, part 2 of Cornelia Funke’s popular young adult series the Inkheart trilogy. The epigraph to chapter 26 is the quotation in question, attributed to Nietzsche in a work titled Die Weisse und die Schwarze Kunst (The White and the Black Art). Nietzsche never wrote a book by this title, which appears to be fictional. I’m not sure why Funke attributed a made-up quotation to a fictional work by a real author, but this misattributed quotation has certainly spread far beyond the pages of her book.
How Do I Determine Whether a Quotation Is Misattributed?
I’ll conclude by offering some guidelines for evaluating the attributions of quotations. If you’re reading sources that are generally trusted and well regarded for their fact-checking or scholarly rigor, such as The New York Times or PMLA, you can usually assume that all quotations have been accurately attributed and checked. Large newspapers like The New York Times employ teams of fact-checkers, for instance, and scholarly journals like PMLA have thorough processes of peer review and copyediting.
But smaller, nonscholarly publications might not have the resources to check quotations. And while some social media platforms might moderate their content to some degree, they do not check the accuracy of the vast majority of quotations posted on them. So if you see a quotation reposted by someone on Twitter, even someone you know and trust, it’s best to check it yourself. I would consider a quotation that does not mention the work it came from or context in which it was said to be especially suspect. If you want to use any quotation from an untrusted or dubious source in something you’re writing, perhaps a speech or an essay, it’s always a good idea to find and verify the original quotation.
For further reading, see our interview with the scholar Ellen Carillo on digital literacy in “post-truth America” and Carillo’s MLA Guide to Digital Literacy.
- See Grady for a recent example of a misattribution that just won’t go away. See O’Toole for a more extensive discussion of commonly misattributed quotations.
“The Apocryphal Twain: ‘If You Don’t Read the Newspaper, You’re Uninformed. If You Do, You’re Misinformed.’” Center for Mark Twain Studies, 21 Feb. 2018, marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-if-you-dont-read-the-newspaper-youre-uninformed-if-you-do-youre-misinformed.
Becker, Michael. “Einstein Probably Didn’t Say That Famous Quote about Insanity.” Becker’s Online Journal, 13 Nov. 2012, www.news.hypercrit.net/2012/11/13/einstein-on-insanity.
“Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken.” Quote Investigator, 20 Jan. 2014, quoteinvestigator.com/2014/01/20/be-yourself.
Funke, Cornelia. Inkspell. Scholastic, 2011. Google Books, www.google.com/books/edition/Inkspell/_QBHmumI__YC?hl=en&gbpv=0.
Grady, Constance. “Why Marianne Williamson’s Most Famous Passage Keeps Getting Cited as a Nelson Mandela Quote.” Vox, 30 July 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/7/30/20699833/marianne-williamson-our-deepest-fear-nelson-mandela-return-to-love.
“Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results.” Quote Investigator, 23 Mar. 2017, quoteinvestigator.com/2017/03/23/same.
“A Lie Can Travel Halfway around the World While the Truth Is Putting Its Shoes On.” Quote Investigator, 13 July 2014, quoteinvestigator.com/2014/07/13/truth.
O’Toole, Garson. Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth behind Familiar Quotations. Little A, 2017.
Join the Conversation
We invite you to comment on this post and exchange ideas with other site visitors. Comments are moderated and subject to terms of service.
If you have a question for the MLA's editors, submit it to Ask the MLA!