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Top Ten Commonly Misattributed Famous Quotes

Updated on November 8, 2014
Tamzin Merchant played Catherine Howard in the Showtime television series "The Tudors".
Tamzin Merchant played Catherine Howard in the Showtime television series "The Tudors". | Source
P.T. Barnum
P.T. Barnum
King Louis XIV
King Louis XIV
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette

Many well-known sayings have been ascribed to famous people. Unfortunately, in many cases, these famous phrases have been wrongly attributed. It may shock you to learn that the following famous quotes were likely never uttered by the people that are commonly associated with them. Or, at the very least, they were said by someone else first.

The genesis of this article occurred when I was writing a hub about famous hoaxes. In the introduction, I had originally written, "P.T. Barnum said that 'there's a sucker born every minute'. These legendary hoaxes were clever enough to make suckers of us all.'" After some research, I discovered that Barnum wasn't the person who invented this phrase. Then I became curious about other quotes that have been wrongly attributed. It turns out that there are a plethora of them.

“I die a queen, but would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.” - Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard was the fifth wife of England’s notorious King Henry VIII and the second to lose her head after being convicted of treason. Howard was executed at the age of seventeen for allegedly having an extramarital affair with a courtier named Thomas Culpepper. According to legend, Howard defiantly stated just before being executed that she wished that she had married Culpepper instead of the king. However, the most historically reliable accounts of her execution do not mention her saying this, and historians consider it a myth.

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

Barnum was a 19th century showman who was famous for promoting hoaxes. Although Barnum may have believed that a sucker is born every minute, this famous saying was actually stated by a competitor of his, David Hannum. It was later wrongly attributed to Barnum.

“I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to death your right to say it.” – Voltaire

Everyone knows that Voltaire said this…except he didn’t. It was actually written by a biographer of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall. She was attempting to summarize Voltaire’s philosophy.

“I am the state.” – King Louis XIV

King Louis XIV was an extremely powerful ruler, but there is no record of him saying or writing this phrase.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” – Albert Einstein

This famous phrase has also been attributed to Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. In all likelihood, none of them ever said it. It was written by Rita Mae Brown in her 1983 novel “Sudden Death”.

“The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

This seems like something that Stalin would have said, but there is no proof that he said it. This is probably the most controversial of the quotes on this list. Honestly, it may have been said by Stalin, but the lack of solid evidence makes it impossible to know for sure.

“The ends justify the means.” – Machiavelli

Machiavelli is usually associated with this famous saying, but this exact phrase does not appear in “The Prince” or any of his other writings. It is usually attributed to Ovid, an ancient Roman poet.

“I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.” – George Washington

Parson Weems, who wrote a heavily fictionalized 19th century autobiography of America’s first president, is responsible for creating the famous legend about Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a child. Washington supposedly refused to lie about felling the tree when confronted by his father, even though he believed that he would get in trouble if he admitted to the deed. Weems created the story out of whole cloth, apparently feeling that Washington’s myriad real-life accomplishments wouldn’t be enough to keep his readers interested.

“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Abraham Lincoln

This clever phrase seems like something that Lincoln would have said, but there is no record of him saying it. It was first attributed to him several years after his death.

“Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette was the doomed wife of King Louis XVI. She supposedly said “let them eat cake” in response to being told that French peasants did not have any bread to eat. Supporters of the French Revolution attributed this phrase to her, intending to show that she was dismissive and ignorant of the problems of the common French people. However, there is no evidence that she actually said this. The origins of the term are unclear.


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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Ao much of what we think we know taint necessarily so. If marie Antoinette had said "Let them eat cake," she wasn't referring to Twinkies. At the time cake was the residue left in the pan after the bread was baked. At least that is what I have heard.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      That is interesting that those quotes have different authors or are of uncertain origin. You might want to make sure that you are properly accrediting those photos from sources in the public domain with links back to the source. You can edit and add the links.