5 Misused Quotations and Where They Come From
We use quotations a lot. Sometimes it’s in public speaking; sometimes it’s to round off an essay. Sometimes it’s because being able to cite someone else’s words makes our point more forcefully than we might have been able to make it ourselves. But quotations are also very easily misused.
Some are misattributed – for instance, a huge number of quotations are attributed to one of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill even when they were said by someone else altogether; more generally, quotations will get attributed to someone more famous than the person who actually said them. That matters not only for the sake of accuracy, but also if the person who said the quotation is important to the point you’re making. Another problem is quotations taken out of context. In some cases, this can completely change the meaning of what’s being said. And finally, there are some quotations that are complete fiction.
Here are some of the quotations that are most commonly misused, where they come from and what they really mean.
1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” – Jane Austen
Probably the most famous words that one of Britain’s most celebrated writers ever wrote, this is the opening to Pride and Prejudice, and it appears on countless cushions, tea towels, aprons and assorted other bits of kitsch. To be fair, most of the people who use the quote in this way do so understanding its context – but for those who don’t, it can give entirely the wrong impression.
The reason that “a truth universally acknowledged” so often tops lists of the greatest first lines of novels is because it sets up all the mistaken beliefs and assumptions that underlie Pride and Prejudice. As the very next line explains, “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” And that is precisely the opinion of Mrs Bennet, who has five daughters in need of husbands, and whose reckless pursuit of eligible bachelors on their behalf places all of their futures in jeopardy, from her encouragement of Lydia and Kitty’s irresponsible behaviour, to embarrassing Elizabeth and Jane to the extent that their prospective partners nearly lose interest. But the novel is equally clear that it’s not just Mrs Bennet’s foolishness that’s the problem, but the social conventions that give rise to her, and her husband’s lack of interest in getting involved in his daughters’ lives to undo her mistakes.
As with many misused quotations, the problem is that “a truth universally acknowledged” is ironic; it’s neither true nor agreed upon, except in the minds of parents like Mrs Bennet. Wealthy single men don’t necessarily want wives; but matchmaking mothers definitely want them to want wives. The irony is pretty obvious on first reading, but few of us now encounter either Pride and Prejudice or its famous opening outside of the cultural context of films, TV shows, references and all the cushion covers and tea towels embellished with its opening sentence, which means that we can end up missing its subtleties.
2. “This above all: to thine own self be true” – William Shakespeare
As perhaps the most famous play in the English language, Hamlet is full of endlessly quoted lines, but perhaps none so often misused as “to thine own self be true.” It comes at the end of a long lecture delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes on the occasion of Laertes leaving to study in France – and immediately after Laertes has similarly lectured his sister Ophelia on the wisdom of her closeness to Hamlet.
Polonius has already been established as something of a windbag, and now he demonstrates that by giving Laertes some advice on how to succeed independently in the world. The advice is all reasonable: don’t borrow or lend money; dress well but don’t show off; don’t start any fights but if someone tries to fight you, ensure that you win; listen to advice but use your own judgment. But while sensible, none of these platitudes are particularly actionable, and in modern performances of the play Laertes is often stifling a yawn as his father goes on and on.
What’s more, Polonius is not just a windbag but a hypocrite. Another much-quoted piece of his advice – “brevity is the soul of wit” – is usually played for laughs because Polonius is incapable of shutting up. Throughout the play, Polonius is a schemer and a deceiver (though not an especially effective one). Overall, he isn’t someone whose advice you’d be inclined to trust.
And in this context, the specific line that is most quoted – “to thine own self be true” – is particularly absurd. It’s hard to imagine that Polonius really wants Laertes to be true to himself; he wants him to fit the mould of “good son” that he has envisaged for him. We later learn that Polonius’ trust in Laertes is so shallow that he has sent Reynaldo to France in order to spy on him. Reynaldo’s task is to speak to people who know Laertes and cast aspersions on his character, to see if they agree or if they defend Laertes against him – even though, as Reynaldo points out, this could damage Laertes’ reputation if he’s innocent of the accusations. Even though Polonius’ speech is often quoted as the counsels of a wise father, the play shows him to be anything but.
3. “The NHS will last as long as there’s folk with faith left to fight for it.” – Nye Bevan
No other country has a relationship with its health service quite like Britain does with its National Health Service, usually abbreviated to NHS. Created in the late 1940s, the NHS provides healthcare free at the point of use to everyone living in the UK, paid for out of taxation. Despite other state-provided services created at the time being rolled back in the intervening years, the NHS has hung on amid funding cuts and an ageing population.
One of the main reasons for this survival is the fierce attachment felt to it by much of the British population, as this quotation demonstrates. To people from other countries – especially ones where healthcare is a less politically disputed topic – the idea of inserting “the NHS” into a sentence where you might expect something more along the lines of “freedom” or “democracy” might seem a little absurd – especially calling for people to have “faith” rather than anything more concrete. But in Britain, this makes perfect sense. The idea that the NHS is under attack and in need of defending is political commonplace, and the belief that its founder might have envisaged these challenges and issued a call to arms is inspiring.
The only problem is that there’s no evidence he ever said it. Though enthusiastically quoted as being from Nye Bevan, this quotation actually comes from a 1997 BBC drama by Trevor Griffiths, Food for Ravens, which depicts Bevan’s life from the perspective of his final days. It’s been suggested that the quotation was in use before the drama, but even then the references are dated to more than 20 years after Bevan’s death. Genuine quotations from Bevan on the NHS can be equally inspiring, but are usually more practical, such as arguing, “There is nothing that destroys the family budget of the professional worker more than heavy hospital bills and doctors’ bills.” Others, such as arguing that the creation of the NHS meant that Britain has “the moral leadership of the world” are less comfortable now than they were in the late 1940s – so perhaps it’s no surprise that Griffiths’ invention has taken hold instead.
4. “I took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
This quotation has the dubious honour of having the exact opposite meaning when given its proper context. It comes from Robert Frost’s best-known and possibly most-misunderstood poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, from 1916.
The poem tells the story of a traveller in a wood, who reaches a point where the path diverges. Crucially, the two paths look much the same, both worn with people walking there. The traveller chooses a path, telling himself he will return and take the other fork next time, but equally knowing it would be unlikely for him ever to come back.
The final verse is where the misunderstandings arise:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The traveller doesn’t say this from the vantage point of that far future, looking back; he can’t actually know the impact of taking one road over another. Nor does he know whether he did actually take the road less travelled, since the two roads looked much the same. The message of poem, then, is not what the quotation, taken in isolation, implies; it’s not about following your own path and taking your chances on an unpopular route, which is how it’s often understood.
Instead, it’s about nostalgia, and the dangers of hindsight bias. The traveller will claim his decision in the mood made all the difference, enough though – as far as he knows – it will make no difference at all. He’s assigning meaning to a meaningless choice, as humans are naturally inclined to do.
The point isn’t that we should choose the less-trodden path; the point is that people being asked about the decisions that led to this point will often claim they took the less-trodden path (metaphorically) when they did nothing of the sort. Or to put it another way, it’s about how we pore over the decisions of the rich and successful and the risks they took, while ignoring all the people who aren’t rich or successful despite making the same decisions and taking the same risks – because we prefer to think that our lives are the result of the choices we’ve made, and ignore the role of chance. The misinterpretation of Frost’s poem underlines just how strong this tendency can be.
5. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Perhaps the most commonly used reading in Christian weddings, this passage in Corinthians is also typically misused. To the reader who doesn’t know its Biblical context, it sounds like a beautiful meditation on the role of romantic love and how a married couple should treat one another. As the passage ends in the Common English Bible: “Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” What better reading could there be for a wedding? It’s especially popular as a religious reading for a wedding where many of the guests aren’t Christians, as it doesn’t explicitly reference God or the Christian faith.
The problem is that “love” in the context of Corinthians doesn’t mean romantic love as we understand it today. In fact, some translations of the Bible, including the King James Bible, don’t translate it as “love” at all, preferring the translation of “charity”. The original Greek text uses “agape”, a word for which there is no precise translation in English. Ancient Greek contains words for four different types of love: eros (romantic love), philia (brotherly love, or friendship), storge (love between family members) and finally agape, which they conceived of as the highest form of love, the love of man for God and God for man, which was unconditional, universal and eternal.
While these definitions are simplified, and scholars can debate for some time exactly how each one should be understood, the overall point is clear: Paul, writing in Corinthians, was referring to something that is explicitly not about the kind of love we celebrate with weddings. So while the reading, given proper context, is appropriate for the weddings of Christian couples who want to celebrate God’s love as well as their own, it’s not the point where the Bible talks about romantic love as it’s often believed to be.