Careful With That Quote:

For some reason, I was thinking recently about commonly used quotes that, when read in their original context, mean something quite different -- sometimes nearly the opposite -- of what many modern quoters use them to mean. For example, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" is usually used to suggest that two cultures are ultimately irreconcilable; but the full quote is very different:

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
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!
Likewise, some people defend antitrust law by quoting Adam Smith's line "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." But Smith actually said:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice.
Hardly a ringing defense of antitrust law.

Similarly, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," from Shakespeare's Henry VI, part 2, is said by a revolutionary who is not portrayed as a particular sensible character; shortly afterwards, Dick (who said the line) and Cade (who agreed with it) move on to condemn anyone who can write.

So my question: What other such quotes can people come up with? Again, I'm looking for quotes that (1) are pretty famous and (2) are often used to mean one thing, but where (3) the original work is saying nearly the exact opposite (either because the original line was facetious, or was followed by something of a "Yes, but," as in the Kipling or in the Smith quotes).

Please post your suggestions in the comments, and please stick within these three rules.

MrBuddwing (mail):

"Tell it to the Marines! ...

... the sailors won't believe it!"
3.23.2005 1:25pm
Michaelg (mail):
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times": Dickens meant not that it was an era of extremes, but that those describing it "insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
3.23.2005 1:30pm
Joe C. White (mail) (www):
"A little learning is a dangerous thing...

Drink deep, or taste not the Phyrrean spring.
There, shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again."

from "On Criticism" by Alexander Pope
3.23.2005 1:35pm
Jae Lee (mail) (www):
Gerald Ford on Impeachment:

“What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives to be at a given moment in history; conviction results in whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office.”

Full quote:

“What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives to be at a given moment in history; conviction results in whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office. Again the historical context and political climate are important; there are few fixed principles among the handful of Precedents.

I think it is fair to come to one conclusion, however, from our history of impeachments; a higher standard is expected of Federal judges than of any other ‘civil officers’ of the United States. The President and Vice President, and all persons holding office at the pleasure of the President, can be thrown out of office by the voters at least every four years. To remove them in midterm (it has been tried only twice and never done) would indeed require crimes of the magnitude of treason and bribery.”
3.23.2005 1:37pm
fulmar dankwerts (mail):
"God's in his heaven, alls right with the world." from Robert Browning's play Pippa Passes. Sung by Pippa, a factory girl on her one day off a year as she sees all the beautiful people and envies them. In fact, the people are unhappy, plotting adultery and murder, etc.
3.23.2005 1:45pm
"I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."

-- Charles E. "Engine Charlie" Wilson, then CEO of GM, during the confirmation hearings to be Eisenhower's Defense Secretary. Most people take the "vice versa" and turn it into an undeserved declaration of corporate arrogance.
3.23.2005 1:45pm
Michaelg (mail):
"The best of all possible worlds," from a novel in which disaster follows disaster.
3.23.2005 1:48pm
John Foster (mail):
Not exactly a quote, but Springsteen's "Born in the US" The song is actually pretty bitter, but was turned by the Reagan campaign into something patriotic.
3.23.2005 1:54pm

Another Shakespeare quote, this from Richard II's opening lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent" is often used to describe current times as bad times, in particular a rough winter. But the fuller quote reveals that the bad times are over: "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York; / And all the clouds that lour'd upon our homes / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried." In context, the winter of discontent is in the past and has been transformed into a glorious summer, with dark clouds buried in the ocean.

Moreover, you could argue that this counts as a double reverse misleading quote, for as Richard goes on he explains that although these are happy, celebratory times for his fellow members of the House of York, he does not personally share their joy and the "glorious summer."
3.23.2005 1:58pm
Michaelg (mail):
"The business of America is business": Evidently a distortion of Coolidge's actual words, "[T]he chief business of the American people is business." He went on to say, "Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. . . . We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction."
3.23.2005 1:58pm
Don Le Messurier (mail):
Charles E. (CE) Wilson, onetime prsident of General Motors, at his nomination hearing for Secretary of Defense.
What you hear quoted:
"What's good for GM is good for America"

What he said:
"I used to think that what was good for GM was good for America"
3.23.2005 2:01pm
chuck jackson (mail):
The exception proves the rule.

This is often quoted as to mean somethink like "Oh well, even though the facts contradict theory, let's stick with the theory." In fact it means, "Data that contradict a theory, challenge the validity of the theory." Here prove means test as in firing proof loads in a firearm or in phrases such as "Aberdeen Proving Grounds."
3.23.2005 2:07pm
Thomas (mail):
In Europe, the following quote fragment by communist writer Bert Brecht is well known and used to the point of cliché by pacifists:

"Stelle Dir vor es ist Krieg und niemand geht hin!“
"Imagine - there's a war on and nobody's going!"

(my translation). However, the quote, read in full, is not at all pacifist in intent:

"Stell dir vor, es ist Krieg, und keiner geht hin. Dann kommt der Krieg zu dir, und willst du nicht die Waffen der Deinen tragen, dann wirst du die der Feinde tragen müssen."
"Imagine - there's a war on and nobody's going! Then war comes to you, and if you do not want to bear the arms of your own side, you will have to bear those of the enemy."

IIRC, Brecht wrote this in the 1940s to exhort people to fight against the fascists. Cf. this topical discussion thread (in German).

Incidentally, Brecht fled from East to West Germany after becoming disillusioned with Stalinism in the 1950s. His verse "The Solution" from this period remains worth reading:

After the uprising on June 17th
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had flyers distributed in Stalin Way that said
That the People had frivolously
Thrown away the Government's Confidence
And that they could only regain it
Through Redoubled Work. But wouldn't it be
Simpler if the Government
Simply dissolved the People
And elected another?

(via Wikipedia)
3.23.2005 2:09pm
Ben (mail):
I have two quotes that I like:

"Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men." George S. Patton

"Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by here,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
--inscription at Thermopylae
3.23.2005 2:10pm
Joe Liu (www):
"Good fences make good neighbors."

From Robert Frost's "Mending Wall". Often quoted in support of clear dividing lines, see, e.g. Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 240 (1995) (Scalia, J.), when the poem is far more skeptical of such, see, e.g., id., at 245 (Breyer, J., concurring).

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

From Exodus, 21:23, 24. Often quoted in support of strong punishment, when in fact it is meant as a limiting principle for punishment (i.e. requiring proportionality).
3.23.2005 2:17pm
Larry (mail):
Hope springs eternal in the human breast...

The full couplet
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never Is, but always To be blest:

Alexander Pope (1688–1744) An Essay on Man (Fr. Epistle I)
3.23.2005 2:22pm
John Steele (mail) (www):
"I am shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment."

Now usually quoted as the embodiment of pompous hypocrisy, but in the movie the listeners knew that the speaker wasn't even pretending to be shocked. It wasn't hypocrisy; everyone was "in on the game."
3.23.2005 2:29pm
Tom Johnson (mail):
"[W]e must never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding." - Justice Marshall, McCullough v. Maryland

Original meaning: Since the Constitution cannot embrace all the particulars that are likely to arise under it, one must infer those particulars from the nature of the general grants of power in the text.

Current meaning: The meaning of the Constitution can evolve from age to age as society matures and develops.
3.23.2005 2:31pm
Wm. Shakespeare (mail):
"To thine own self be true" is meant to be a vapid exhortation, if memory serves.
3.23.2005 2:38pm
"Ignorance is bliss"

Full Quote

"Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’Tis folly to be wise." - Thomas Grey
3.23.2005 2:53pm
Crime & Federalism (mail) (www):
My two favorites:

"Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," which misquotes Emerson, as noted here.

"Split the baby," an phrase that people use to reach some compromise when at loggerheads -- "Let's split the baby." The problem is that Solomon did not split the baby. Rather, he gave the entire baby to the rightful mother. Saying he was going to split the baby was merely a method used to determine whom the rightful mother was. So Solomon would not want you to split any babies!
3.23.2005 2:55pm
RPS (mail):
Does anyone have a definitive statement of what Charlie Wilson said? Obviously the gist of it is clear, but since we are talking quotations, I'd be interested to know the verbatim quote.

"I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa."

This seems much more defensive than the below as if he is defending his currently held views. Of course it could also be apologetic depending on the context.

"I used to think that what was good for GM was good for America"

Here he sounds contrite as if he was being accused and is now admitting the error of his previous ways.
3.23.2005 2:55pm
DV (mail):
This is a slight variation, but a denial of one's racism with the line "But some of my best friends are black" is now usually taken as insincere, and possibly even *evidence* of racism. But, as Instapundit explains:

instapundit link

"Actually, though, the 'some of my best friends' line was originally thought uncool because of what usually followed: 'my shoeshine guy, the janitor, the bartender at the country club, the yard man,' etc. The 'best friends' line was thus rather hypocritical: these were people who were actually servants, and only promoted to 'best friend' status in the service of rebutting charges of racism."

It seems to me that—*if true*—"some of my best friends are black" is actually a pretty good (though not airtight) answer to a charge of racism.
3.23.2005 2:59pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Shakespeare has a lot.

From Richard III is one of the most wrongly used quotes ever: "Now is the winter of our discontent." Two points related to the emphasized portions: First, the reference to "winter" is not to the season, but is a metaphor for the end, as winter used to be seen as the end of a cycle. Thus, Richard was referring to the end of discontent. Yet it is usually used to refer to a winter i.e. a season of discontent — the precise opposite of the way in which it was used, which was to signify the end of discontent. Second, the reference to "our" is personal to Richard, in that as royalty he referred to himself in the plural. Yet, "our discontent" is generally used as a "collective" even though it was referring only to the end of Richard's discontent which was the beginning of just about everyone else's in the play's problems.

Another good example: "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" This is generally used by people as asking where their lover is. That is not what it means, it means why are you Romeo and not someone with whom Juliet's family did not have a feud with. Juliet knew exactly where Romeo was when she asked this question. Yet it is often used in the wrong way to signify trying to find a lover, when in fact it is a question by someone who has found their lover but wants to know why it is a particular person.
3.23.2005 3:04pm
More40 (mail):
Another Frost misreading. The Road Less Traveled is often thought to be a paen to nonconformity. Particularly the line "I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference."

The tone of the poem is actually mournful. The narrator is saying that line "with a sigh". The poem is about how our choices make other choices impossible, and so life and experience has the effect of narrowing our perspective. The realization of all the lives we can not live because we are living ours is a point of regret.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the other as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads onto way
I doubted if I should ever come back

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference
3.23.2005 3:04pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
"Split the baby" is usually used correctly in that it means reach a compromise that's worse than either extreme position, which was exactly what Solomon attempted to do. In legal publications, I see it used most often in connection with Justice O'Connor's opinions which are said to "split the baby" meaning reaching a compromise position that is worth than either extreme.
3.23.2005 3:07pm
Matt Barr (mail) (www):
"There's method in his madness" is generally used when admiring a plan you don't much understand. Polonius said it of Hamlet ("though this be madness, yet there's method in't"), whom Polonius thought literally insane, when he began to appreciate that the Prince was insulting him.

Milton's "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" is a perversion by Satan of the message that servitude to God is paradise.

Variations on "the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing" are used to describe confusion and miscommunication, usually in organizations, but it's originally used in the Sermon on the Mount to mean that you shouldn't be ostentatious about your good deeds.
3.23.2005 3:15pm
My favorite is Frost's "The Road not Taken," and the line "And I took the one less traveled by."

It is constantly used in graduations and sorts as a rallying cry to seize the future and go out on your own. But in fact, there is no meaningful difference between the two paths. And in the future, the speaker - in an act of puffery - will simply claim that there was a difference so that he seems more adventuresome.
3.23.2005 3:17pm
bedford (mail):
Back in the late 60's/early 70's many a dorm room was decorated with a poster usually featuring a boy and girl embracing on the beach in the sunset, with this poem on it by Frederick Perls:

"I do my thing, and you do your thing;
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine;
You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful."

But they would omit the last line, which made the poster/poem considerably less "romantic" if perhaps not quite the opposite in meaning:

"If not, it can't be helped."
3.23.2005 3:25pm
Michael Newman:
Another Shakespeare, from The Tempest, generally and incorrectly quoted as "We are such stuff as dreams are made of." In fact, the quote is "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." The first is a somewhat nebulous statement that all humanity is a dream. The second, far more concrete, is really a statement that our "dreams" (experience, consciousness, awareness, etc) is limited ("rounded") by a sleep ("death.")
3.23.2005 3:30pm
Michael Newman:
Yet another Shakespeare: "Put money in your purse," which appears to be sound advice -- but comes from Iago, one of Shakespeare's most destructive villains.
3.23.2005 3:32pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
This might be slightly off-topic, but I frequently see Pauline Kael quoted to the effect of "I don't know how Nixon could have been re-elected; nobody I know voted for him". People trot this out as an example of out-of-touch, Upper West Side elitism, but that description doesn't fit Kael at all. I can't imagine her saying something like that, except ironically. I haven't been able to find it in her books, although she wrote a lot so I could have missed it.
3.23.2005 3:49pm
Tony (mail):
I'm delighted to see this subject here! Collecting these quotes has interested me for years, and I'm amazed to see how many more of them there are.

How about "the proof is in the pudding"? I don't even know what that is supposed to mean. Discussion of the original can be found here:
3.23.2005 3:50pm
Coincidental Reader:
George Orwell discusses just such a quote in his essay "Notes on the Way," 2 Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell 18 (Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus eds., 1968):

Marx's famouns saying that "religion is the opium of the people" is habitually wrenched out of its context and given a meaning subtly but appreciably different from the one he gave it. Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above; he said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognised to be a real one. "Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people."
3.23.2005 3:57pm
Doc (mail):
"Religion is the opiate of the masses."

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." Marx

Does that count?
3.23.2005 4:05pm
Carl Bridges (mail):
People often take Jesus', "Suffer the children to come unto me" as a statement that children often suffer unjustly. In the language of the King James version of the Bible, "suffer" meant "allow."
3.23.2005 4:10pm
htom (mail):
"Tell it to the Marines."

From a conversation between King Charles II, his court, some naval officers, a Royal Marine, and reported by Samual Pepys in 1664.

Properly said of something that can be verified by the Marines, who have been everywhere and seen every odd thing in the world, and who have the courage to say "I don't believe you" to the King.


Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells how the phrase was originated by King Charles II. According to legend, Samuel Pepys was retelling tales told to him by the navy and he happened to mention flying fish. Many in the court were sceptical, but a naval officer concurred, saying that he, too, had seen these marvellous fish.

The king believed him, saying, 'From the very nature of their calling, no class of our subjects can have so wide a knowledge of seas and land as the officer and men of Our Loyal Maritime Regiment. Henceforward, ere ever we cast doubts upon a tale that lacks likelihood, we will first tell it to the Marines.'

Byron, in 1923, observed, 'That will do for the marines, but the sailors won't believe it.' And the following year, Scott used the phrase, 'Tell that to the marines - the sailors won't believe it!' in Redgauntlet.
3.23.2005 4:36pm
KW (mail):
"Money is the root of all evil."

This is a distortion of the real quote, which is that "love of money is the root of all evil."
3.23.2005 4:47pm
Robert Schwartz (mail):
"Am I my brother's keeper?" is used by many as a tocsin for social consciousness. Read in context, it is nothing of the sort. It is an evasion, a transparent lie to cover up the murder of Abel. God of course sees right through the deception [10] and punishes Abel immeadiately [12]. Abel's crime is murder, and his failure is his failure to control his anger [7], not his failure to care about his brother or vote the straight Democrat ticket.

Gen 4:
[6] The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?
[7] If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it."
[8] Cain said to Abel his brother, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
[9] Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"
[10] And the LORD said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is cries out to me from the ground.
[11] And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.
[12] When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth."
3.23.2005 4:50pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Genesis 31:49, "G-d watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another" -- now used as two halves of a divided coin worn as jewelry, one for each of two lovers who intend to return to each other.
In the original Jacob and Laban agreeing to separate permanently rather than fight.
3.23.2005 5:10pm
Urijah Kaplan (mail):
Not a quote exactly, but the phrase "Ugly American" (from the book) is usually used to refer to meddling Americans, in the book, it actually refers to a literally (physically) ugly American who manages to accomplish many good works in a humble can-do way. Of course, the book contains many of the former type as well, but it is more in contrast.
3.23.2005 6:32pm
bedford (mail):
I think I'm within the spirit of the thread with this one, even if I don't include all the lines and the reference is not particularly literary:

The Turtles' "Happy Together" is considered by many to be a very romantic lovesong about a happy couple, but one of the guys in the Turtles (Mark? Howard?) used to always point out it was a song about UNREQUITED love; that people somehow ignored the first line:

"Imagine me and you -- I do."

The same can be said about REM's "The One I Love" in which the supposed object of affection is described as "A simple prop to occupy my time."
3.23.2005 6:35pm
cc (mail):
Uh, the line in the Turtles' song is actually
Imagine me and you -- a deux.

Think French.

Also, I only came into the comments to post about love/money/evil, but someone beat me to it.
3.23.2005 7:14pm
Glenn Bowen (mail):
(")"To thine own self be true" is meant to be a vapid exhortation, if memory serves.(")

-To thine own self be true, for it will follow, as the night the day, thou then canst not be false to any man."

or somesuch. being true to yourself is the beginning of your relationship with the rest of the world, if you want a good relationship, that is. the shorter quote seems to be used out of context many times to justify selfishness.

Polonius to his son Laertes/Hamlet. Not vapid.
3.23.2005 7:20pm
No French Turtle:

Uh, the line in the Turtles' song is actually
Imagine me and you -- a deux.

Think French.

Not sure it would undermine the original poster's point if you were right -- since the crucial word here is "imagine" -- but you aren't. Kind of an amusing misread, though. Anyway, google the first line and you'll find plenty of evidence to the contrary. Here's one link: I do

As for Polonius, that's a tougher call.

This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man "(ll.78-80).

GB is certainly right that the rest of the quotation changes the meaning from the egocentric reading. But Polonius is a windbag, and his long parting exhortion to his son certainly smacks of cliche.

OK, I don't have anything to add; I just couldn't resist the temptation to quibble over both the Turtles and Willy S.
3.23.2005 8:19pm
Simon Evans (mail) (www):
"A custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance".

Usually used to refer to a custom that is more commonly breached than observed. Hamlet is actually referring to a custom that it would be better to breach than observe:


The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.


Is it a custom?


Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
3.23.2005 8:55pm
Blar (mail) (www):
Another song that gets misinterpreted is "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. It is often taken as a nice romantic love song, even something appropriate for a wedding, but the speaker in the song actually has a creepy obsession, closer to a stalker than a lover:

"Oh can't you see, you belong to me. My poor heart aches every step you take, every move you make ... I'll be watching you"

"Since you've gone I've been lost without a trace... I feel so cold and I long for your embrace, I keep calling, baby, baby, please"


Returning to literature, people often quote Santayana as saying something like "Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it." They mean that we have to remember the tragedies of the past and learn the lessons of history in order to keep such tragedies from happening again. Santayana was not talking about tragedies, though. He was claiming that progress involves the accumulation of knowledge and experience, and thus cannot happen unless we hang on to what we have learned in the past. In other words, we don't want to keep reinventing the wheel. A fuller quote:

"Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress."
3.23.2005 9:20pm
Glenn Bowen (mail):
worth a look-


they have "knowledge is power" attributed to Francis Bacon; I was under the impression the actual quote was 'In and of itself, knowledge is power"

but by whom...?
3.23.2005 9:38pm
noahp (mail) (www):
I actually disagree with Jae Lee's claim for misinterpretation of the Gerald Ford quotation he cites. To even suggest, as Ford did, that "The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives to be at a given moment in history" is downright facetious. Ford was trotting this out as if it were "the only honest answer," that Congress truly followed this dictum in deciding impeachments. I think this is a blatant mischaracterization on Ford's part. The idea that there are no objective standards for what constitutes an impeachable offense, a position that was as far as I know not seriously defended before Ford, was clearly an attempt by Ford to create room for Ford to argue, "Well,in reality there are no standards for impeachment, so it's okay if I can't really point to principled reasons for trying to impeach Douglas."
3.23.2005 11:40pm
samuelv (mail):
"Vengeance is mine... saith the Lord." Usually used to justify humans taking vengeance. The actual context is the exact reverse (Romans 12:17 KJV):

17Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

18If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

19Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

20Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

21Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
3.23.2005 11:59pm
Shakespeare's line from Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1, is perhaps the most misquoted line in the 20th century.

Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.

Books have been based on the misinterpreted line, and countless quotes have fallen from the mouths of public figures who should have known better.

Shakespeare did not refer to ferocious animals. Even in the limited context of the line this is apparent. Its frequent misquoting also makes this apparent, as it often becomes "set loose the dogs of war".

Shakespeare made the metaphor of war as a machine, with clutches or catches, commonly called "dogs", which held it in check. To let a dog slip would set a machine in motion.

The point of the line was that the machinery of war would be out of anyone's control, not that war was a ferocious dog.
3.24.2005 12:30am
mcp (mail):
Not exactly the original request but another frequent misquote:

"Theirs but to do OR die" is often substitued for Tennyson's "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do AND die"
3.24.2005 1:58am
Eli (mail):
"My/our country, right or wrong."

Comes from a toast from Stephen Decatur. He was a professional military officer and, the full quote makes it clear that he's celebrating military professionalism rather than making a jingoistic statement.

"Our country. In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country right or wrong!"
3.24.2005 8:18am
amcguinn (www):
Well known one from the UK: "There is no such thing as society" -- Margaret Thatcher

"Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it ... They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."
3.24.2005 8:36am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I've heard that "What a Wonderful World" (George Weiss / Bob Thiele, famously sung by Louis Armstrong) is meant ironically, but I've never seen the fuller context that explains this.
3.24.2005 9:03am
"Good fences make good neighbors" is one of those lines that is subject to multiple interpretations. It's certainly true that, as Breyer notes in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, the poem seems to cast doubt on the idea that fences are a good thing. But in support of Scalia's use of it, there's an even more cynical reading possible, that good fences make good neighbors because people do not naturally get along, and therefore fences keep them from getting into conflicts -- which is the idea behind the separation of powers as well.
3.24.2005 9:23am
Pat Dennis (mail):
"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..," sometimes quoted as a biblical command to dutifully pay one's taxes. Jesus was, however, using a metaphor crystal-clear to his rabbinical interrogators to imply that we should give ourselves fully to God. For he first asked whose image appeared on a coin (Ceasar's), then said the above, adding, "... render unto God that which is God's." Everyone present knew quite well that we are said in Genesis to be all created in God's image: His face is upon us. The quote has virtually nothing to do with taxes
Pat Dennis
3.24.2005 9:41am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I've seen the title of Rudyard Kipling's peom, "The White Man's Burden" used as evidence that Kipling, like many of his contemporaries, believed that colonialism was something noble and good. But when I read it, I see a pretty cynical and negative view of colonialism. The second verse makes clear that Westerners headed out to work in the colonies are going to be making someone else wealthy. (This was one of the Little Englander criticisms of colonialism.)

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
3.24.2005 10:29am
Orwell Fan:
As George Orwell noted in "Politics and the English Language," the phrase "hammer into anvil" is usually used to imply that the anvil gets the worst of it. And yet it's always the hammer that breaks on the anvil, never the other way around.
3.24.2005 11:11am
B. R. George:
As a reply to the `best of all possible worlds' comment: the notion wasn't originated by Voltaire. The earliest instance I'm aware of comes from Leibniz, who is generally regarded as having believed it. Thus, the original (or at least the oldest well known) context does in fact support the obvious reading.
3.24.2005 12:05pm
Another Romeo and Juliet:
"No love was lost between them" taken to mean that they have no love for one another, that two people dislike each other. Of course, realizing the source of the quote, it is more clear that it means the opposite, that they did not waste one drop of the love between them, they drank fully from that cup...
3.24.2005 1:50pm
In response to Pat Dennis' quote above, "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's", it is of course true that the reference to God is left out. But that does not negate the first part, rather the quote indicates that the laws and ways of the kingdoms of Earth have their place, but in the ways of the spirit and the life of your soul remember God's place. I take this to mean one should follow the laws and pay taxes and not disdain society's conventions and rules with the excuse of living by God's rules, which do not necessarily preclude the human ones.
3.24.2005 1:56pm
Monika (mail):
What about Christ's last words:
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46

puzzling, until you read all of Psalm 22, from which Jesus takes the quote:

For the leader; according to "The deer of the dawn." A psalm of David. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm, hardly human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: "You relied on the LORD--let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you."
Yet you drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother's breast. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; since birth you are my God. Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me. They open their mouths against me, lions that rend and roar. Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. As dry as a potsherd is my throat; my tongue sticks to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death. Many dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. So wasted are my hands and feet that I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, LORD, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my forlorn life from the teeth of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
6 Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly; in the community I will praise you: "You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.
I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
8 The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer praise. May your hearts enjoy life forever!"
All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the LORD; All the families of nations will bow low before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, the ruler over the nations. All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the LORD; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.
3.24.2005 2:32pm
Mike Owens (mail):
"I for one welcome our new ant overlords." Stated by news anchor Kent Braukmann on the television cartoon The Simpsons, after an ant farm aboard a space shuttle is broken open by Homer. Kent believes the 'giant' ants seen on his TV monitor are space invaders and he is rushing to serve them. However, they are really just normal ants floating near the camera on the shuttle. Using this line means that the object (ants) are not actually worth the servility being displayed.
3.24.2005 3:28pm
Schellsburg (mail) (www):
Regarding "To thine ownself be true.", this is pretty clearly intended by Shakespeare to sound vapid and superficial, as it is spoken by Polonius, who is characterized throughout the play by his verbosity (hence the Queen’s exhortation to him “more matter, with less art”). Also, the line comes as the closer of a long series of platitudes given as advice to his departing son (“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice”, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”, etc. then “This above all: to thine ownself be true”). In this light, the straightforward use of this line by recovery groups and others seems unfortunate.

May lines popped out of Shakespeare and displayed as truisms turn out to possess an ironic meaning in their original context. Some have been noted above. “The better part of valor is discretion.” is Falstaff speaking in the play Henry IV, trying to justify his cowardice.

Though this is a bit oblique, there are also instances of musical compositions being used in public contexts that create some unintended subtexts if you consider their textual meaning. One example is the famous “bridal march” that’s often played as a processional at weddings. This comes from Wagner’s Lohengrin, where it accompanies the marriage between Elsa and the title character. The irony is that this was one of the most unsuccessful marriages in history: they don’t even manage to make it through the first night before cracking up.
3.24.2005 3:37pm
Glenn Bowen (mail):

"In this light, the straightforward use of this line by recovery groups and others seems unfortunate"

if Polonius is giving bad advice, then yes.
3.24.2005 5:05pm
Stephen Quist (mail):
The term, "the mark of Cain", is often used as a sign of opprobrium, much like the scarlet A of Hester Prynne. In Genesis, the mark is one of protection. In the normal course of events, others in the community would have killed Cain as an outcast for killing his brother. The mark indicated he was under God's protection, so no one else was permitted to injure him.
3.24.2005 6:07pm
David Hecht (mail):
St. Paul's statement "I am made all things to all men" (1Co 9:22), often used in the third person ("He is all things to all people") is often understood to describe someone insincere.

Yet in the scriptural context, Paul is actually saying the reverse--that he approaches everyone on their own terms, not to curry favor or make a good impresion, but to convince each person of the Good News of the gospel:

"For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)
3.24.2005 9:42pm
polite poster (mail):
As to the "Render under Caesar..." quote, if it does indeed refer to taxation remember that there is such a thing as unjust taxation. Slavery is a near 100% tax on property. Of course one can find passages in the Bible justifying slavery as well, which were used by slavery advocates during the many debates before the Civil War.

As to this Thatcher quote:
"Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it ... They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

One's obligation could be thought of as being a hard-working and law-abiding person. If an entity, such as a government or community, were to damage a person or steal property from a person meeting this obligation an entitlement would surely be created. Unless a government's aim was merely to damage persons and steal property and then find a way to wiggle out of its obligations, of course. But one usually assumes governments are acting honorably, and that if they should make a mistake they would endeavor to remedy it honorably.
3.25.2005 5:09am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
"Carrot and stick" does not mean you dangle a carrot from the end of stick in front of the donkey's head to induce him to walk forwards while you're on his back, like in the cartoons. But you probably knew that already.

As for Polonius' speech, there is nothing wrong with his advice to Laertes to be true to his own nature; Shakespeare's point is that if Laertes already knows how to do the right thing [Lee, S.], and if Polonius knows Laertes already knows it, all the specific advice which came before was wasted talk, which is his characteristic.
3.25.2005 7:06am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Immaculate Conception != Parthenogenesis
3.28.2005 12:01pm