For example, one of my favorite Einstein quotes for many years was:
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Only trouble is Einstein never said it. Sociologist William Bruce Cameron actually first wrote those words in a book published in 1963. There are so many quotes falsely attributed to Einstein that they are known as “Neinsteins,” a play on the German word for “no.”
Here’s another Neinstein that I’ve seen widely circulated:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
There’s no evidence that Einstein ever said that. When you think about it, does it really sound like something he would have said? And that’s the point: you should be skeptical of quotes that seem too good (or glib) to be true.
If you’re suspicious about a quote, take a moment to track down its source. A good starting point for anything that doesn’t seem right is snopes.com. If it’s not covered by Snopes, it may be on one of the quote-buster blogs that have sprung up to stamp out false attributions. One site I like is quoteinvestigator.com, which explores the origins of quotations. But there are any number of specialty sites such as fakebuddhaquotes.com that you can check out as well.
I once used a quote attributed to Lincoln in a post on how to stop procrastinating:
“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”
It was the word “hustle” that made me wonder if Lincoln really said it. So I did a little research. It turns out “hustle” wasn’t used in its current sense until after Lincoln’s death. Commentators also said Lincoln was unlikely to have used the words “things may come.” I decided to keep the quote because I liked it, but I changed my post to say that Lincoln probably never said it.
Of course, I’m not the only one who’s been fooled by fake quotes. Last October, on “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver showed clips of three presidents—Reagan, Clinton and Obama—misquoting Lincoln. Oliver lambasted politicians for being sloppy with quotations, calling the practice “the karaoke of ideas.” In particular, he lampooned Ben Carson for claiming that Jefferson had spoken against gun control, even though the phrase “gun control” wasn’t used until the 1960s. Like nearly everything he spears, Oliver’s take on bogus quotes was funny and spot on. “Either we care about the accuracy of quotes and where they’re sourced, or we don’t care at all,” he intoned.
Obviously, Oliver thinks we should care, and so do I. We should always strive for accuracy in our writing—and that includes the words we attribute to respected historical figures. As the presidential race heats up, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more mangled quotations out of the mouths of candidates. It’s incumbent upon us to respond with a healthy dose of skepticism and redouble our efforts to be careful in our own writing and speaking.
‘Say it ain’t so!’ 5 famous misquotes
Last year, writer Kali Halloway compiled a list of history’s most famous misquotes. Here are five that might surprise you:
- “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, the football coach at Vanderbilt and UCLA in the 1940s and 50s, coined this expression—not football legend Vince Lombardi.
- “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but, no, Gandhi didn’t say it.
- “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Maybe Freud thought about it in his subconscious, but there’s no evidence that he ever said it out loud.
- “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Even the U.S. Post Office got this quote wrong when it put it on a stamp honoring Maya Angelou last year. The quote comes from a book of poetry written by Joan Walsh Anglund.
- “You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” While much scholarship has been devoted to determining whether Lincoln actually said this, the verdict is he probably didn’t.