The 15 Most Misunderstood Quotes of All Time

We’ve all seen famous quotes plastered on social media, t-shirts and motivational posters but have you ever stopped to think about what these well-known sayings actually mean?

It turns out, many of the most popular quotes in history are frequently misunderstood or taken out of context.

In this post, I’m diving into 15 of the most commonly misinterpreted quotes to uncover their true meanings.

Let’s get started.

1. “I took the road less traveled.” – Robert Frost

1. I took the road less traveled. - Robert Frost

Many people cite this line from Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” as an ode to individualism and forging your own unique path in life.

However, a closer reading reveals that the two roads were actually worn “really about the same.”

Frost is commenting on how we often imbue arbitrary decisions with greater meaning in retrospect.

2. “Money is the root of all evil.” – The Bible

This is actually a misquotation. The full line from 1 Timothy 6:10 reads: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

The Bible is warning against greed and materialism, not money itself. When used ethically, money can be a positive tool.

3. “Nice guys finish last.” – Leo Durocher

The famed baseball manager’s actual quote was: “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.”

It was a specific dig at the 1946 New York Giants, not a universal maxim. Over time, the quote morphed into a flawed belief that being kind is a detriment to success.

4. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

There’s no record of Gandhi ever saying this exact phrase.

It seems to be a loose paraphrase of a passage from his 1913 book where he wrote that we must “become the change we want to see.” The sentiment is similar, but the wording is different.

5. “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

When historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined this phrase in a 1976 article, she was lamenting how women who made valuable societal contributions were often overlooked by history in favor of more “rebellious” women.

The quote has since been co-opted to justify all sorts of “bad” behavior as empowering.

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

This quote is often attributed to Voltaire, but it was actually written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs.

The snappy line sums up Voltaire’s free speech advocacy, but they aren’t his exact words.

7. “Elementary, my dear Watson.” – Sherlock Holmes

Surprise – this famous catchphrase doesn’t appear anywhere in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories.

It likely originated in stage and film adaptations of the detective tales. Diehard Holmes fans know the quote is apocryphal.

8. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” – Murphy’s Law

Aerospace engineer Edward Murphy did have an unlucky day in 1949 that inspired the naming of Murphy’s Law but his original statement was along the lines of: “If there’s more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” The simplified version caught on instead.

9. “The ends justify the means.” – Niccolo Machiavelli

While this ruthless sentiment is in line with Machiavelli’s reputation, the political philosopher never penned this exact phrase in his famous work “The Prince.”

The closest he gets is: “In the actions of all men and especially of princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end.” A subtle but important difference.

10. “Let them eat cake.” – Marie Antoinette

Not only is there no evidence that the French queen uttered this callous line upon learning that peasants had no bread, but the quote first appeared in philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Confessions” when Marie Antoinette was only 10 years old.

Her infamous reputation likely led to the misattribution.

11. “I think, therefore I am.” – René Descartes

Descartes’ proposition “Je pense, donc je suis” or “Cogito, ergo sum” is often referenced as a pithy affirmation of human existence and self-awareness.

In context though, it was part of a deeper philosophical argument that the act of doubting one’s own existence served as proof of the reality of one’s mind.

12. “Gild the lily” – Shakespeare

The poetic phrase “gild the lily” is thought to mean unnecessarily adorning something already beautiful.

But Shakespeare’s actual line in King John is “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” Gilding refined gold and painting a lily would be excessive and superfluous, which is the point he was making.

13. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate…” – Marianne Williamson

This inspirational passage about letting our own light shine is frequently misattributed to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inaugural address.

In fact, it comes from Marianne Williamson’s 1992 book “A Return to Love.” Mandela did reference the quote, but was clear that he was quoting Williamson.

14. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

This warning against complacency is often credited to 18th century statesman Edmund Burke.

However, there’s no record of him saying or writing it. The quote may be a paraphrase of lines from Burke’s writings on the French Revolution, but the exact phrasing seems to have emerged much later.

15. “Blood is thicker than water”

We typically interpret this to mean that family bonds are stronger than friendships.

But the full saying may have originally been: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” implying the opposite – that bloodshed on the battlefield creates deeper loyalties than biological ties.

As these 15 examples show, it’s all too easy for quotes to take on a life of their own, separate from their original context and intent.

The meanings we ascribe to these sayings often say more about us and our values than the original speaker.

So the next time a pithy quote pops up on your social media feed, take a moment to investigate where it really came from and what it meant at the time.

You may be surprised to learn the true story behind the soundbite.

At the very least, you’ll emerge a more informed consumer of quotes – and have some great literary trivia to share at your next dinner party.

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Chandan Negi
Chandan Negi

I’m the Founder of Internet Pillar - I love sharing quotes and motivational content to inspire and motivate people - #quotes #motivation #internetpillar