What Was Really Meant?
Quotations often misunderstood
“Might makes right.”
Plato (427–347 BCE)
Plato’s monumental work The Republic (c.375 BCE) is a dialogue between Socrates and a group of multi-syllabic poet-philosophers named Simonides, Thrasymachus, Adeimantus and Glaucon. Book I begins with the question, “What is justice?” Adeimantus says, “I proclaim that might is right, justice the interest of the stronger.” The others similarly argue that justice is a matter of self interest, expediency and whatever you can get away with—all of which sound suspiciously like injustice. Socrates, however, finally manages to show them that justice does not always bring rewards, but must be pursued for its own sake. The saying, “Might makes right,” originally intended as a spur toward justice, is now often used as an excuse for pursuing inequality and injustice.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Samuel Butler (1612–1680)
This familiar proverb is often thought to be from the Bible, but in reality, it was English poet Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663) in which the saying first occurs. In Part II, Sir Hudibras, the English equivalent of Don Quixote, and his squire, Ralpho, are imprisoned. Hudibras proposes marriage to a widow, who agrees to free him and marry him only if he will endure a whipping, an action men once fared for their lovers as a sign of purity and virtue. She supports this ritual, saying,
Love is a boy, by poets styled,
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.
A similar expression occurs in the Bible: “He that spareth his rod, hateth his son” (Proverbs 13:24), but the meaning is far removed from the circumstances in Butler’s poem. Now heard as an excuse to behave harshly towards children, the original intent of the line was that love deserved to be tested before entering into marriage.
“Full of the milk of human kindness.”
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
This agreeable phrase was not intended as a compliment by the murderous Lady Macbeth. Her greatest fear, as revealed in her soliloquy in Act I, scene v, was that her husband might not be willing to “play false” and step into the role of king.
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.
Now a tired cliché, the phrase gradually acquired its pleasant associations with the help of eighteenth century writers like Charles Churchill: “With the sweet milk of human kindness blessed, the furious ardour of my zeal repressed.” and Edmund Burke: “These gentle historians dip their pens in nothing but the milk of human kindness.”.
“In one fell swoop.”
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
As the tragedy plays out, Macbeth has sought to secure the royal succession for his own line by murdering his rival, Macduff, and his family. Macbeth’s henchmen surprise and murder Macduff’s wife and children. In Act IV, Scene iii, Macduff responds to the terrible news with disbelief:
All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Those who regularly use this catch phrase with the meaning, roughly, of “with one shot,” or “in one motion,” are probably not aware of the archaic meaning of fell, which is a cousin of the word felon and means “ruthless” or “savage.”
“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
In Act II of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597), Juliet is not yelling for Romeo; she is not beckoning, hearkening nor commandeering him, as is often thought by those who repeat this popular quote. Juliet is in love with Romeo, but the two come from enemy families, making a nice get-together with their parents rather difficult. In the scene, Juliet stands on the ever-present balcony, talking to herself of her woeful love, asking aloud, not “where” is Romeo, but “wherefore [why] is Romeo?” Why is he a member of the family she is honor bound to despise?
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
“First we kill all the lawyers.”
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
There is probably no phrase in Shakespeare that is so often used in the wrong context. In Henry VI, Part 2 (1598), devious Jack Cade and his followers muse upon what would have to be done to destabilize society, to make a revolution and allow a despot to take control. The comment is not a condemnation of lawyers; in fact, Shakespeare uses the statement as the highest compliment for lawyers. The only thing standing in the way of Cade’s execution of his corrupt ideas is the lawyers, the protectors of a democratic society.
“There shall be no love lost.”
Ben Jonson (1572–1637)
English dramatist Ben Jonson’s second play, Every Man Out of His Humour (1600), was a brilliant satire that poked fun at several leading playwrights of the day and caused a feud known as the “War of the Theatres.” In the play, three characters named Brisk, Buffone, and Sogliardo joke about turning horses into toys. Buffone changes the subject slightly by joking that Brisk is in love with Sogliardo, whereupon Sogliardo says, “There shall be no love lost.” The original intention of the line was to indicate that Sogliardo felt the same toward Brisk, but today the same phrase means the opposite; that love is not an option.
“He had the Midas touch.”
Richard Lassels (1603–1668)
In Greek mythology, the gods granted the wish of Midas, legendary king of ancient Phrygia, who asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. It was a foolish wish and its fulfillment became a curse, for even the very food Midas tried to eat turned to gold before he could consume it. What was originally meant to be a curse is now applied as a compliment to business promoters and financiers. The idea that the “Midas touch” is a blessing, even an endowment of genius, traces back to The Voyage of Italy by Richard Lassels, who wrote of Italian painter and architect Raphael (1483–1520), that his “touch of a finger could, Midas like, turn galley pots to gold.”
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667)
The expression first appeared in English theologian Jeremy Taylor’s religious publication Ductor Dubitantium (1660). His phrase, “If you are in Rome, live in the Roman style,” was originally meant to support his assertion that if all people followed God’s commands there would be no cultural differences between peoples, and the misunderstandings caused by contradicting customs would vanish. However, the expression is used today with quite the opposite meaning, reminding us to be more tolerant and understanding of the ways of others.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
William Congreve (1670–1729)
William Congreve’s witty Restoration comedy, The Way of the World (1700), has a complex plot involving deceptive suitors, virtuous coquettes, reformed rakes, secret affairs, threatened divorces and lots of longing for love. In Act III, scene viii, the rejected Lady Wishfort (“wish for it”) says,
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
Ironically, a few scenes earlier, the same character says, “A little disdain is not amiss. A little scorn is alluring.” Today, the insincere, coquettish nature of the quotation is almost completely forgotten.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
In his Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope likens criticism of poetry to overindulging in drinks that “intoxicate the brain.” Those who are not clever enough for such sentiments, the great poet avers, are like drunks not able to carry their drink. A universal quote, now proverbial, it was originally meant as a warning to those who might deprecate fine poetry. Today, it is usually heard as a terse command to cease questioning and be satisfied with ignorance.
“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
David Glasgow Farragut (1801–1870)
Naval commodore David G. Farragut gave this famous order on August 5, 1864, during the battle for Mobile Bay in the Civil War. When warned by his navigator of the danger, the commodore exclaimed, “Damn the torpedoes! Captain Drayton, go ahead.” While Farragut’s name is commonly associated with the saying, it is not well known that during this era, the term torpedo was used to describe an underwater or floating mine.
“I hear you loud and clear.”
Lewis Carroll (1832–1898)
The slogan became commonplace with the advent of the “walkie talkie” (mobile radio) during World War II, when the sender needed assurance that his messages were being heard. In truth, the original saying was used with just the reverse meaning—a declaration that one’s message had been vigorously delivered. The saying originated in English author Lewis Carroll’s allegory Through the Looking Glass (1872), in which Humpty Dumpty states, “I said it loud and clear; I went and shouted in his ear.”
“Let the punishment fit the crime.”
Sir William S. Gilbert (1836–1911)
The oft-heard quote originated in Act II of the satirical operetta The Mikado (1885). In this most formal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical dramas, the Mikado of Japan pontificates a rigid moral code for his people. He is disappointed on behalf of the newest executioner, Ko-Ko, at the total lack of customers. Ko-Ko, incidentally, is under penalty of death for flirting. Facetiously reminding the audience that he is a compassionate ruler and endeavors to decree a punishment that is appropriate to the offense it seeks to redress, the Mikado sings,
My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time—
To let the punishment fit the crime—
The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment.
“Good fences make good neighbors.”
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
In Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall (1914), two neighboring farmers walk along their fence in springtime. The narrator is feeling playful and makes a few light-hearted jokes. The other farmer, somewhat more practical, responds with the famous quotation. Today, many repeat the line and ascribe the saying directly to Frost without realizing he didn’t agree with the sentiment; he actually thought that the farmer uttering the remark was unnecessarily stodgy.
“And I don’t mean maybe.”
Gus Kahn (1886–1941)
Those who use this catch phrase with a severe or menacing tone, and assume that the matter is deadly serious and the implied threat something dire, will be surprised to hear of the phrase’s origin in a spirited but nonviolent vaudeville song of 1922, Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby by Gus Kahn and composer Walter Donaldson. The tune was made popular by the leading entertainer of the day, Al Jolson. Kahn’s lyric begins,
Yes, sir, that’s my baby.
No, sir, I don’t mean maybe.
Yes, sir, that’s my baby now.