My Favorite Misquotations

Just a few days ago as I was writing a certain post on this blog, I thought of a really good quote I wanted to include. It’s the famous one where the French historian Alexis de Toqueville describes his visit to the United States in search of the true source of “her greatness and genius.” He concludes famously:

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

The whole gamut of American politicians, from Reagan to Clinton, have loved this quote and embellished their speeches with it. It seems to strike a special chord with us as Americans, because it embodies one of our deepest held beliefs about the foundations and strength of our country. I think we also love it because it was a Frenchman who said it, and if even the French are telling us we are great, well then, we really must be great.

The only problem is, de Toqueville never said it. He did, in fact, say a great many nice things about America, just not that particular thing. I only found out because I have an inconvenient but incurable habit of checking sources.

You can read the full story of how the quote passed through multiple presidential speeches, with each president becoming more and more sure that it had been said by de Toqueville here.

Another of my favorite quotes comes from Nelson Mandela’s historic 1994 inaugural address. I first heard it from a roommate at college, who had been given it in one of her classes. It’s such a lovely quote that I memorized it, and it saw me through more than one teenage identity crisis. Here it is in full:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

It was only years later that I was about to quote it somewhere (perhaps this blog again), and went hunting for the proper citation online, only to find that the true source was Marianne Williamson, an author of inspirational books. Her graceful response to the mixup is itself worthy of quoting:

“Several years ago, this paragraph from A Return to Love began popping up everywhere, attributed to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address. As honored as I would be had President Mandela quoted my words, indeed he did not. I have no idea where that story came from, but I am gratified that the paragraph has come to mean so much to so many people.”

My most recent example of a misquote spread like wildfire on Facebook in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. It was a beautiful quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.:

“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I wholeheartedly applaud the sentiment, and in fact wrote something along the same lines myself. But I was unable to put it as my Facebook status for the simple reason that, again, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t actually say it. At least not all of it. The stirring opening sentence was penned by Jessica Dovey, a recent Penn State graduate living in Kobe, Japan, who then appended the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. However, somewhere along the line the crucial quotation marks were removed, and the entire thing ended up being misattributed to King millions of times via Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs.

Our appetite for authority seems to often surpass our appetite for accuracy. These are only a few of the hundreds of quotes mistakenly attributed to famous people. Do you have a favorite?

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One thought on “My Favorite Misquotations

  • August 3, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    The de Toqueville “misquote” seems to be more of a warning than a pat on the back. The idea is found all through the scriptures.


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