Quotations often erroneously attributed
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Attributed to the Bible
This is probably the most quoted “biblical” passage that it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. It does appear several times in Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733–1758), by Benjamin Franklin, who almost certainly popularized it. Earlier, in 1668, French poet Jean de la Fontaine wrote, “Help yourself and God will help you.” But the saying was around long before that, a persistent proverb which, as many devout Christians argue, is the antithesis of Jesus’ teaching. The saying is indeed ancient. The moral of one of Aesop’s fables, Hercules and the Wagoner (c.580 BCE), is “The gods help them that help themselves,” and Greek playwright Aeschylus (525–456 BCE) wrote, “God loves to help him who strives to help himself.”
“No sooner said than done.”
Attributed to Quintus Ennius (c.239–169 BCE)
Only fragments remain of the works of Roman poet Quintus Ennius, but the phrase found in fragment 315 of his Annals (c.81 BCE) is quite clear. Annals was a collection of personal and historical occurrences, and Ennius’ popularity gave him cause to write about infamous events. While he often receives credit for this expression, it is believed Ennius was quoting Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio (237–183 BCE) who, upon his victory in the battle of Hama in 202 BCE, spoke to the vanquished Hannibal: “But to what end do I speak so? ‘No sooner said than done’—So acts your man of worth.”
“Look before you leap.”
Attributed to Thomas Tusser (c.1524–1580)
Thomas Tusser, an English farmer and author of agricultural poetry, included this pithy folk aphorism in his 1557 work, Hundredth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, along with many other wise maxims and instructions on farming. In chapter 57, a man advises his single friend to marry, but cautions him, “Look ere thou leap.” The phrase, however, was already in print, having appeared eleven years earlier in The Proverbs of John Heywood (1546), a gnomic poem.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Attributed to William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
Many believe this quasi-religious quote derives from the Bible, and some attribute it to Shakespeare, but the original author is Alexander Pope (1688–1744). The great English poet wrote this in his Essay on Criticism, Part III, in 1711. He is denouncing critics who have something to say about everything, even those things which will admit of no imperfection.
No place so sacred from such fops is barred,
Nor is Paul’s church more safe than Paul’s churchyard:
Nay, fly to altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
“Born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
Attributed to Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605–1615), contains hundreds of proverbial sayings, at least two dozen of which are still in common use in English today. This quote can be found in Part II, Book IV, chapter 73. Quotation sources often credit Cervantes with originating the saying, but it dates at least as far as Roman writer Decimus Junius Juvenalis (c.60–c.140), better known as Juvenal. His Satire 13 contains what was likely an old saying even to him, Gallinae filius albae, which can be loosely translated as “fortunate son.” The saying refers to someone who has no knowledge of the difficulties faced by those who are not well off.
“All that glitters is not gold.”
Attributed to Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
The expression was popularized by Spanish writer Cervantes in Don Quixote, Part II, Book III, chapter 33, wherein Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza attempts to justify his loyalty to the unstable Quixote. “If you don’t think it fit to give me an island because I am a fool,” Panza says, “I’ll be so wise as to not care whether you do or no. ’Tis an old saying, the Devil lurks behind the cross. All is not gold that glisters.” Variations of this popular adage appear in many languages around the globe.
“I’ll turn over a new leaf.”
Attributed to Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
Don Quixote is a classic satirical tale mocking chivalry and wealth. In practical terms, it is an account of one man’s adventurous journey in search of destiny. In Part II, Book III, chapter 13, Sancho Panza, tiring of his master’s delusions, contemplates leaving the Don’s service by muttering this well known proverb to a fellow squire. The word leaf refers to a sheet of paper. Often credited with originating the saying, Cervantes was merely creating rustic dialogue when he had Panza utter it. In truth, the phrase appeared in print at least five years before Cervantes was born, in Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York, better known as Hall’s Chronicle (1542), by English historian Edward Hall (died 1547). Describing the events of a battle, Hall wrote, “When they saw the Englishmen at the weakest, they turned the leaf and sang another song.”
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Attributed to Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)
This ancient proverb not only appears in the writings of Greek poet Theocritus (c.300–c.250 BCE), but in many books of folklore and sayings published before 1600. The earliest known example after the Greek, printed in a collection of English proverbs in the fifteenth century, appears as, “A birde in hond is better than thre in the wode.” In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Part I, Book IV, chapter four, Quixote’s master’s wife commands his presence, and while he delays to see her until he wins a battle, his squire says,
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,
And he that will not when he may
When he would, he shall have nay.
“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Attributed to George Herbert (1593–1633)
A well-worn proverb, it appears as “Whose house is of glass, must not throw stones at another” in Jacula Prudentum (1640), by English poet and rector George Herbert. A slightly different version in Olio (1789), by English philologist Francis Grose (c.1731–1791), reads, “One who has a head of glass should never engage in throwing stones.” However, the earliest known printed source of this now tired cliché is Troilus and Criseyde (1385), a lengthy narrative poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400). From, “Who that hath an hed of verre, Fro cast of stones war hym in the werre!” the saying we know today has sprung. The proverb reminds us that if we criticize others, we are prone to be criticized in return.
“Charity begins at home.”
Attributed to Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682)
In Part II, section iv, of Religio Medici (1642), by English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne, the author explores the human penchant for charity, and says that with virtue and charity come regrets and peeves. He writes, “‘Charity begins at home’ is the voice of the world; yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner.” While many credit Sir Thomas with originating this saying, he was quoting an ancient proverb that can be traced as far back as the writings of Greek poet Theocritus (c.300–c.250 BCE). Roman playwright Terence (185–159 BCE) included the expression in Act IV, scene i, of his drama Andria, and variations may be found in English Works (c.1380) by religious reformer John Wycliffe (c.1320–1384) and many other early sources.
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
Attributed to John Wesley (1703–1791)
The commonly heard saying, often though to be from the Bible, is frequently credited to English clergyman John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church. In a sermon entitled On Dress (c.1790), based on a biblical passage, Wesley said, “Neither this nor any text of scripture condemns neatness of apparel… Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.” However, nearly a century before Wesley was born, English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) published Advancement of Learning (1605), an introduction to an encyclopedia of all knowledge that he never completed. Book II of this monumental work states, “Cleaness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.”
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Most Americans have heard this saying attributed to Ben Franklin since their early childhood. It does appear in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, but Franklin did not originate the saying. Scottish poet James Thomson (1700–1748) can be credited with producing the first known printed source, but even then he was obviously quoting an old proverb. In his poem, The Castle of Indolence (1748), Thomson describes a town where all its people accumulate their wealth.
“A penny savèd is a penny got” —
Firm to this scoundrel maxim keepeth he,
Ne of its rigour will he bate a jot,
Till it has quenched his fire, and banished his pot.
“This is adding insult to injuries.”
Attributed to Edward Moore (1712–1757)
Edward Moore was a British linen draper who had the good fortune to become a famous writer in his time. Although he is now all but forgotten, he published poems and fables and was most successful as a dramatist. His first comedy, The Foundling (1748), based on Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (1740), contained the oft-quoted line in Act V, scene v. However, the expression had existed since the first century, appearing in Fabulae Aesopiae by Roman writer Phaedrus. His collection of five books, consisting of Aesop’s fables told in verse form, contained the phrase Iniuriae qui addideris contumeliam, or “injustices added to insults,” in Book V, chapter three.
“Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.”
Attributed to William Prescott (1726–1795)
While colonel William Prescott has often been credited with the quote, it was major general Israel Putnam (1718–1790), at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, who is believed to have been the first to utter it. The order was passed on, along with several other orders, to the U.S. troops defending the hill outside Boston. After three assaults by the British, the Americans were forced to withdraw due to a scant supply of ammunition. Because the U.S. troops were able to hold on so long, the loss of the battle actually became a significant boost to American morale.
“That government is best which governs least.”
Attributed to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
According to conservative columnist William F. Buckley and others, Thomas Jefferson supposedly made this laissez-faire statement, but the phrase first appeared in print in Henry David Thoreau’s landmark essay, Civil Disobedience (1849), a work that greatly influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi and other activists. However, Thoreau refers to the saying by enclosing it in quotation marks, indicating that it was a well known proverb in his day.
“Let them eat cake.”
Attributed to Marie Antoinette (1755–1793)
The saying has long been erroneously attributed to Marie Antoinette, queen of France, who became a choice target for agitators during the revolution. To buttress support for the revolution, many slanderous stories were told about the royals and aristocrats, including Marie, wife of Louis XVI. It was said the queen asked why the masses were so violently opposed to Louis’ reign. “They are hungry, my lady,” was the reply. “The people have no bread!” To which Marie innocently said, “What, no bread? Then let them eat cake.” The quote is actually translated from Qu’ils mangent de las brioche, literally meaning “Let them eat pastry.” French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) related the story in his memoirs, The Confessions, Book VI, which were published in the mid 1780s. The quotation was likely attributed to Marie Antoinette to justify her murder and ridicule her memory.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?”
Attributed to Robert Burns (1759–1796)
This beloved New Year’s Eve song, often credited to Scottish poet Robert Burns, is, in fact, of unknown authorship. As a poet, Burns was deeply interested and involved in the common people. He was an active folklorist, a collector of old songs and melodies that, before they were written down, were preserved only by word of mouth from one generation to another. Sometime before 1793, Burns met an old man who sang two nostalgic verses. Burns immediately found the lyric to be both beautiful and remarkable, and set it down in writing. He then composed three more verses, but his verses are usually omitted from printed versions of the songs and are never sung on New Year’s Eve. The great poet’s influence is felt, however, through the melody of the song. Burns found the singer’s tune to be rather mediocre, and he therefore substituted a tune for which he had already written another poem. Incidentally, in the Scottish dialect auld lang syne literally means “old long ago” or “old long since,” and is a reference to what we colloquially call “the good old days.”
“Blood is thicker than water.”
Attributed to Josiah Tattnail (1795–1871)
Josiah Tattnail was a U.S. naval officer assigned to America’s first Asian Pacific fleet. In 1850, he offered the famous remark upon being asked why he chose to join the French and British shelling Shanghai Harbor. Though usually interpreted as a heroic statement, it was in reality offered apologetically because of America’s official policy of neutrality in China’s colonial wars. An ancient proverb, the saying actually had appeared in print many times before Tattnail uttered it. The earliest known instance occurred in Troy Book by English poet John Lydgate (c.1370–1451) Written between 1412–1420, and finally published in 1513, the opus contained reverent tributes to the great poet Chaucer, and Book III contained these lines:
For naturelly blod will ay of kynde
Draw unto blod, wher he may it fynde.
“Survival of the fittest.”
Attributed to Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
The proposition that only the strongest and most adaptable creatures will survive in nature is often credited to British scientist Charles Darwin, but the phrase did not originate with him and does not appear in his famous treatise, On the Origin of Species (1859). In fact, Darwin’s theory of evolution represented exactly the opposite idea. Simply put, he proposed that those creatures that were best suited to their environment, regardless of their physical condition, would have the greatest likelihood of survival. The biggest, strongest, or fastest animals might actually die out in favor of the small, weak and slow ones. The important factor was not the animal’s fitness but those traits that best suit it to its habitat. The phrase gained popularity, being used mainly as a basis to attack the theory, and later as an excuse for inhumane behavior on the part of nations at war.
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you can not fool all the people all the time.”
Attributed to Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
It has been supposed that Abraham Lincoln said this while campaigning for the U.S. senate against Stephen A. Douglas, September 8, 1858, during a debate in Illinois. The debates were exhaustively covered by the newspapers, and there is an extensive record of what was said by each man. The phrase did not appear in print for nearly forty years, when it showed up in Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (1895) by American writer Alexander McClure (1832–1901). However, during the debates Lincoln did say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand; I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Lincoln lost the election to Douglas but gained such notoriety for his reasoned rhetoric that he was elected president in 1860.
“ ’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Attributed to Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
The great English poet did indeed write these words, in his In Memoriam (1850), but he was not the first to do so. Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777–1844), chiefly remembered for his patriotic lyrics, is the true originator of this all-too-true maxim. While he did not write the exact words we know today, he created the form and pattern of the expression which was subsequently altered by later poets.
What though at my heart he has tilted,
What though I have met with a fall?
Better to be courted and jilted
Than never be courted at all.
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Attributed to Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891)
Showman and impresario P. T. Barnum, one of America’s greatest publicists, is said to have coined this phrase when asked by a reporter how he expected to attract crowds to his circus. Barnum replied that, with feeding elephants and transporting the performers and equipment around the country, this was the least of his worries. The remark was interpreted as belittling the sophistication of his audiences. Though Barnum denied saying anything of the kind, it’s likely his competitors pounced on the phrase, corrupting it into its present form and publicizing it in the hope of disparaging the success Barnum & Bailey’s traveling extravaganza, The Greatest Show on Earth. Late in life, Barnum told a friend that if he had believed what he supposedly said, he’d never have gone to such great lengths to find the curiosities for his museum or the acts for his shows. The phrase was the unofficial title of his biography, first published in 1855.
“A watched pot never boils.”
Attributed to Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865)
English writer Elizabeth Gaskell was the author of several popular novels, the most famous of which was Cranford (1853), the tale of a small English town unraveled by the coming of the railway. She also published poetry and nonfiction, including what many consider to be the best biography of Charlotte Brontë. All her writings revealed a strong distaste for the hypocrisy that was part of Victorian society. Her novel Mary Barton (1848), in which the famous quote appears in chapter 31, was a bold indictment of contemporary labor conditions. While this proverbial saying had been in circulation for centuries, Gaskell’s novel is the earliest known printed source, and she often receives credit for originating this time-worn saying.
“Go west, young man.”
Attributed to Horace Greeley (1811–1872)
Newspaperman and politician Horace Greeley, who is usually associated with this saying, gave full credit to the source when he reprinted it in his New-York Tribune. The original author, John Babsone Soule (1803–1886), first published it in an article in the Terra Haute (Indiana) Express in 1851, in which he said, “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Horace Greeley, a supporter of many progressive ideas, quoted Soule when he editorialized on the vast untapped resources of the American wilderness and urged his readers to go forth and expand the frontier.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Attributed to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (c.1855–1902)
Molly Bawn, a novel published in 1878, is the story of a beautiful young girl named Eleanor (nicknamed Molly Bawn) who falls in love with a man she cannot marry because of his inadequate income. At one point, Molly’s scheming and jealous cousin, Marcia, discusses Molly with Lady Stafford, a visitor. The lady comments that she heard Molly was beautiful, and Marcia answers with this ageless truth, insinuating she does not believe Molly is beautiful at all. While this wise aphorism had been spoken for generations, Hungerford’s novel is the earliest known printed source.
“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Attributed to Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915)
Prolific writer and newspaperman Elbert Hubbard claimed this common-sense quotation was original with him, while his opponents insisted it came from the eloquent utterances of New England essayist, Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The controversy surrounding the true authorship of this popular expression was one of the longest lived and most heated legal battles in the history of the Unites States. The issue flared up in 1889, when diarist Sarah Y. B. Yule (1856–1916) credited the quote to Emerson in her Borrowings, spurring Hubbard to make his claim as the original author. Finally, in 1912, to quiet the controversy surrounding the issue, Yule made a public announcement stating she had copied the quotation into her personal handbook directly from a lecture given by Emerson. The actual quote reads as follows: “If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in his woods, the world will beat a path to his door.” Despite the outcome of the controversy, the quotation is still, on occasion, credited to Elbert Hubbard.
“All I know is what I read in the papers.”
Attributed to Will Rogers (1879–1935)
The quotation is invariably attributed to American comic and writer Will Rogers, whose homespun sense of humor was sharpest when deriding the politicians of his day and exposing the vagaries of current events. He usually began his monologue in the Ziegfeld Follies with some variation of, “Well, all I know is just what I read in the newspapers.” But Rogers did not coin the phrase. Instead he heard it from eminent journalist Herbert Bayard Swope (1882–1958), a foreign correspondent during World War I. Swope framed the statement as a serious reply to a question about the source of his own seemingly limitless fund of information. Rogers was taken by Swope’s answer and made it a staple of his act.
“The buck stops here.”
Attributed to Harry S Truman (1884–1972)
While president Harry S Truman is credited with originating the saying, he didn’t. It was a quote he lived by, and it was a quote associated with his presidency, but it was a quote inscribed on a plaque that sat on his White House desk. Truman received the plaque as a commemoration of his visit to an eastern university while he was a U.S. senator. The saying derives from the phrase pass the buck, meaning blame someone else, but Truman was noted for his willingness to accept responsibility for his actions and the actions of his subordinates.
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Attributed to Harry S Truman (1884–1972)
The remark is also associated with president Truman, who faced a major crisis every day of his presidency, but when he said it, he was quoting his life-long friend and presidential military aide, general Harry Hawkins Vaughan (1893–1981). Vaughan was a cigar chomping Falstaffian character and the most criticized associate of a much-criticized president. Truman and Vaughan would host poker games in the White House with potential appointees, during which Vaughan would mercilessly rip the candidates. If they got too flustered or couldn’t take the ribbing, Truman felt they weren’t suitable for appointment to office. Despite the fact that Vaughan was a troublemaker and an endless source of grief for the president, Truman never wavered in his loyalty to his old World War I pal. In fact, he even seemed to relish the way the general would irritate not only the senate and the press, but the rest of the White House staff.