Wordsmiths like Shakespeare and Robert Frost loved their sarcasm. But when you take comments like that out of context, they can mean the exact opposite of the author’s intention.
That hasn’t stopped us from spouting famous lines, many from classic literature, however we see fit.
We created a list of some frequently used quotes that people just don’t understand. Some came from this Quora post. Others, were added from bits and pieces of high school lit classes.
1. “I took the road less traveled.” In Robert Frost’s culturally omnipresent poem, “The Road Not Taken,” he tries to decide which of two paths he should take. He looks down one but chooses the second, “just as fair” and “worn really about the same.”
If you read the entire poem, the last stanza regales how he’ll say “with a sigh” that his decision “made all the difference.”
In reality, Frost arbitrarily chose his path, which didn’t matter in the long run. He just wants to hide his pessimism.
Of course everyone today uses the quote as evidence of “forging your own path,” “going your own way” and all those other tautologies about fate and individualism.
2. “Money is the root of all evil.” Not really. The love of money is the root of all evil, according to Timothy 6:10 from the King James Bible.
3. “Nice guys finish last.” Nice guys actually finish seventh. Leo Durocher, nicknamed Leo the Lip, served as the field manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the height of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. He made some comment about Mel Ott, right-fielder for the Giants, being too nice, which made the team finish in seventh place. “Baseball Digest” later reprinted the column in which his quote appeared but changed “seventh” to “last place,” according to Freakonomics blog.
Leo’s misquoted words soon became a credo for over-aggressive coaches and guys with no romantic game everywhere.
4. Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? In most high school adaptations of Shakespeare’s well-known play, Juliet raises a hand to her furrowed brow, searching for her lover from a balcony. But “wherefore art” doesn’t mean “where.” It means “why.” Juliet questions why fate made Romeo a Montague, her family’s sworn enemy.
5. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Most attribute this insight to Voltaire. In reality, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, a writer born two hundred years later, paraphrased a quote from Voltaire’s “Treatise on Tolerance,” which begged for understanding between religions.
Still, some report the original reads, “Think for yourselves and let other enjoy the privilege to do so too.” But those words never appear in Voltaire’s essay either.
6. “Love makes the world go ’round.” The Duchess, a hideous character in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” makes this comment in passing right after she advocates beating her baby for sneezing. In context, the author meant the sweet quip sarcastically. But that didn’t stop Ashlee Simpson from making a terrible song.
7. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” In Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Maria writes a letter to Malvolio, trying to convince him that another character, Olivia, loves him — dramatic, right? Maria uses the quote to appeal to Malvolio’s ego, that Olivia (the false author) cannot deny his greatness. Thanks, Sparknotes.
8. “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Talking heads in foreign policy sometimes use this quote as evidence that opposite sides of the globe will never see eye-to-eye. But if they read just a little farther in Rudyard Kipling’s ballad, the next lines read, “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth/When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”
Essentially, world colonization will happen regardless of geo-political borders, and we should all just get along.
9. “The Devil is in the details.” Lazy people somehow bastardized a brilliant German architect’s words to mean the exact opposite. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe really said, “God is in the details.” He’s also credited with another famous aphorism: “Less is more.”
10. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Once again, Bobby Frost wrote a widely misunderstood poem. In “Mending Wall,” a fence separates two neighbors’ yards. Every spring, they collaborate and fix it. But in the process, they disagree on whether they need a barrier at all. Frost makes the last line of the poem ironic. These two curmudgeons simply keep their fence out of tradition, even though it means more work for them.
11. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” More than one slick love letter has included this phrase. But arguably Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet praised a man, not a woman. He actually wrote hundreds of sonnets about this guy, his dearest friend.
12. “Blood is thicker than water.” This gets uttered around awkward family photos on the mantel of nearly every home in the country. The original phrase, however, meant the opposite. An earlier proverb preached, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” In this case, “water of the womb” refers to family while “blood of the covenant” means blood shed by soldiers. So really, military bonds trump your siblings and parents.