'Beam Us Up, Mr. Scott!': Why Misquotations Catch On

How sayings from books, movies, and speeches get misremembered

Warner Bros.

"Misquotations are often stickier than actual quotes," Abraham Lincoln once joked. He didn't really, of course—but he'd be a great spokesperson of the sentiment, given how often his words have been misremembered, miscast, passed down from person to person in a way that little resembles any of his actual statements. (Actually, Mark Twain would be a better candidate for that one. Didn't he say basically everything?)

In the world of speeches and orations, especially historical ones, the persistent misquotation is understandable. You hear a speech. You misremember or mishear a line as something more colorful than it was. If you're a journalist—especially in the pre-recording age, when all notes were taken by hand—you might then type that mis-remembrance into an article. Multiple versions circulate. And so on.

But in the modern age, where basically everything is track-downable, what's our excuse? Why do misquotes arise—and why are they so persistent and hard to eradicate?

The persistence part is simple, especially with the rise of the Internet. It has become far easier to share—and incorrect information is just as sharable as valid information. The more something is shared, the more hits it gets, the more difficult it becomes to verify, and so forth. It becomes easier to just quote and hope for the best. But why do we misquote in the first place?

Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There's a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

In some cases, it's a simple question of word order. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" has an easier rhythm than the actual, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The change certainly matters if you're a poet, or preserving the integrity of Shakespeare. But at least it does no real harm to the meaning.

In some, it's a simplification or contraction of something that's a bit messier to remember without it. "Beam me up, Scotty!" was never actually uttered by any Star Trek character. "Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" was, in the 1968 "Gamesters of Triskelion." Likewise, Humphrey Bogart's iconic "Play it again, Sam" was in reality, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it." Note how in both cases, the sense remains basically the same. The adjustments are minor ones. They aren't blatant misquotations so much as attempts to, on some level, make things sound the way they should sound. These misquotes are in the category of, "right, that's what I wanted to say—and maybe even how I wanted to say it."

There are, of course, simplifications that are more perfidious and sneaky. The famous "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," for one, diverges in just one tiny way from Lord Acton's original phrasing: "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Modifiers like "should" aren't as pretty—or as striking—as absolutes. Rhetorically, the first one surely sounds better (hence, our enhanced memory of it and taste for its correctness). But the gulf between it and the real thing is vast. What one little word can do. (Here's another example: The line from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" that is often quoted as "Theirs but to do or die" is instead "theirs but to do and die." That 'and' might be small, but it makes all the difference.)

The last misquotation type in the "more fluent" category is the most blatant. It actually reworks to a great extent the original line, usually by shortening or simplifying it—and while the result is doubtless superior from a purely oratorical perspective (as in, it sounds more dramatic and is more likely to lodge itself in your mind), it also departs to an alarming extent from the original. Take the oft-quoted Thomas Carlyle gem, from his life of Frederick the Great: "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains." Isn't that nice? A simple, strong definition. Except, Carlyle wrote, "The good plan itself, this comes not of its own accord; it is the fruit of genius (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all)." Not quite the same thing, is it? (But just try to bring the real monster of a phrase to mind when you need a good quote to drive a point home.)

It's not too far from that elaborate paraphrasing to, more literally, putting words into the mouths of unsuspecting quote victims. Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" would be one of the most famous lines in history were it not for the fact that she never actually said it. The line comes instead from Book 6 of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, written several years before Marie Antoinette ever came to Versailles—and its speaker is never actually named but rather referred to as a "great princess." (Oh, and it's not cake; it's brioche.)

And poor Mark Twain. He seems to have said everything there is to say in the world. Several of my favorite lines turn out to be purely apocryphal, like "I would rather go to bed with Lillian Russell stark naked than with Ulysses S. Grant in full military regalia" and "Giving up smoking is easy. I've done it hundreds of times." Several other bon mots are actually not original to Twain, but rather quoted by him (Twain, to his credit, always gave the source; his listeners and readers paid less careful attention.) "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics," for instance, was, according to Twain, an invention of Benjamin Disraeli's, and "Wagner's music is better than it sounds" originated with Edgar Wilson Nye. Twain was a witty man, but, alas, he didn't say it all. (But the quotes, like Lincoln's, stick because they make sense; the greater the cognitive ease, the more superficial and less suspicious the thinking. Why question if we have no reason to think anything is wrong?)

Then, there are those quotes that aren't technically wrong—except they become attributed to a literary character when they were really said by his film counterpart. These, too, aren't malicious; in many cases, our minds simply misremember. Especially if a film's line has that fluency that our memories so love, we might forget entirely that the source was the movie and not the book. Into that bucket falls Sherlock Holmes's most memorable line, "Elementary, my dear Watson," which was never written by Arthur Conan Doyle but came instead from the 1929 film. (Though it's the first Holmes line that likely comes to mind for most fans.) There, too, we put Dracula's famed, "I want to suck your blood"—not words ever penned by Bram Stoker.

And finally, we come to a category of misquotation that has everything to do with our sensory perception: we misquote because we actually, physically misread or mishear (our eyes see what they want or expect to see; our ears hear what, in turn, sounds right to them)—and the result makes so much sense that it sticks.

In "The Mourning Bride," William Congreve makes a beautiful observation of music's appeal: "Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast." Actually, the word in question is breast. But see how close the two look? How easy it would be to read "beast" after "savage." The former almost cues the latter in mind. We think of savage beasts all the time. Savage breasts, not so much.

But perhaps the most frequent victim of this type of error is William Shakespeare, whose lines often look and sound like something else—and something that is frequently easier to recall later on than the original. In Hamlet, we often hear the prince described as "to the manor born." Only, when Hamlet refers to himself, it's as born to the manner. On its own, that makes little sense, a likely reason for the manor's persistence. But take it in full context—"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"—and it becomes quite clear what the prince is trying to say.

And how often does one hear the evil cackling of the Macbeth witches, "Bubble bubble, toil and trouble"? In the play, of course, the proper line is "Double, double"—but the two sound remarkably similar (especially with a British accent), and we're talking about a cauldron here, right? So bubbling makes a great deal of sense.

There is, too, that well-known line from the Merchant of Venice, that admonition that "all that glitters is not gold." (Sometimes, it's also quoted as "also that glistens.") In reality, nothing is glittering or glistening. What Shakespeare wrote was, "All that glisters is not gold." But it's easy to see how the misquotation might arise—and the replacements certainly sound better to the modern ear, and make more sense.

That's the thing about misquotations. They tend, for the most part, to arise not out of malice or intentional misrepresentation but out of understandable cognitive processes. (That, and improper punctuation. Remember Jessica Dovey, the inadvertent heir to Martin Luther King?) And the more understandable a process, the more likely it is to play out in similar fashion for multiple people—and the more likely the misquotation is to spring up at various times and in various places, instead of being immediately corrected.

Of course, the other common reason for misquoting is simple laziness. We think we remember something and so we just write it down, rather than spend time checking. Or, we like the way a phrase sounds or the message it has and so we just assume our (likely online) source is correct—and the more sites there are with the mistake, the more persuasive it becomes—instead of painfully tracking down the original to verify it for ourselves.

So how do you spot that misquote? There's (sadly) no effortless way to go about it. The most we can do is to always be skeptical of ourselves, especially if something sounds too right or fluent or spot on. Because the better it sounds, the more likely it is to be a little off. That, and check quotes before we perpetuate them in cyberspace or print. Otherwise, we might end up like Bob Dylan, who once remarked, "I've misquoted myself so many times, I don't know what I've said." (He totally could have said that, right?)