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Let me clear that up for you, Norman. It’s not a ‘they’, it was a ‘he’, and his name was William Congreve, an English playwright who lived from 24 January 1670 to 19 January 1729. His output of plays was rather small – he wrote four comedies and one tragedy, but fell victim to changing audience tastes – and he turned to poetry in his later years.
In his brief stint as a playwright, he gave the world two of the most misquoted phrases in the English language. Both come from his 1697 play The Mourning Bride, his lone tragedy amid his comedies.
The first, and most germane to this post, comes from Act I, scene 1:
“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak. I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d, And, as with living Souls, have been form’d by Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.”
So, it’s not the savage beast that is calmed by music but the savage breast (i.e., anger).
The second, and no less famous misquote: “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, comes from Act III, scene 8:
“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d”
I don’t think I need to mention the misquoted version. The part of Congreve’s that gets left out of this misquote – the part about heaven – was echoed in the play Faust, in which the eponymous protagonist is offered a choice of devils with whom to make his pact. He asks each how swiftly their rewards can be delivered, and when Mephistopheles promises to be “…as swift as love turns to hate…” Faust knows he’s got his demon.
I don’t fault Norman for misquoting. “Music soothes the savage beast” is probably the second most frequently misquoted phrase in the English language, surpassed only, perhaps, by “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. I find it interesting that they both come from the same play. Congreve’s other four plays were comedies, what we would today call “bedroom farces”. Unfortunately, they were his forté, and when audience tastes turned towards more sophisticated fare, he ended his career as a playwright and spent the rest of his days as one of England’s most celebrated poets of that time.
However, Congreve is not my topic here, but mistaken quotes. Many commonly quoted phrases are misquoted, sometimes deliberately, more often inadvertently. In the case of the Congreve quotes, the mistaken ones fall more easily from modern lips, and it’s often reinforced by popular culture. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve heard the “woman scorned” misquote on TV or in a movie – I don’t have enough fingers, toes or hair follicles to count on. In the 1950 cartoon Hurdy Gurdy Hare, Bugs Bunny, being chased by an enraged gorilla, notes that “They say music calms the savage beast,” and subdues his pursuer with violin music.
Over the years, I’ve noted some frequently misquoted phrases, and the stories behind them are sometimes easy and sometimes difficult to track down.
“Money is the root of all evil”: this is one of the easy ones. The original is biblical, and appears in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (New International Version). A more figurative rendering of the phrase from New Testament Greek is “For every possible kind of evil can be motivated by the love of money.”, which implies that while greed can cause evil, not all evil is caused by greed, nor is greed always necessarily evil.
Mark Twain is one of America’s most often misquoted authors, not only by having his words stated wrongly, but also in having many quotes that aren’t his attributed to him, and his words attributed to others.
Perhaps the most famously misquoted Twain phrase is, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
This came from an incident that occurred when Twain was visiting England, where a cousin of his, James Ross Clemens, lived. When James took sick, it was mistakenly reported in the United States that in was Samuel that was not only gravely ill, but had died. In responding to an inquiry by reporter Frank White, Twain wrote the following note:
“James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
In this case, the original note, in Twain’s own handwriting, still exists:
A famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein is, “God does not play dice (with the universe)”. This isn’t so much a misquote as a mistranslation. In Einstein’s native German, what he said was, “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber bösehaft ist er nicht.” A more accurate translation into English is, God is clever but he is not perverse.” Playing dice with the universe is a more poetic metaphor, but I prefer seeing “God” and “perverse” in the same sentence.
One of the most infamous misquotes in relatively recent history comes from Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher: “Nice guys finish last”. This phrase has been forever locked into American English as meaning that people, especially men, who are nice, are losers. What Durocher actually said was a long way from that interpretation.
On 6 July 1946, Durocher was talking to a reporter, and he mentioned the New York Giants, who were then in last place in the National League. What he said was, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.”
In his autobiography, titled Nice Guys Finish Last, he expanded on this: “…the Giants, led by Mel Ott, began to come out of their dugout to take their warm-up. Without missing a beat, I said, ‘Take a look at that Number Four there. A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there.’ I called off his players’ names as they came marching up the steps behind him, ‘Walker Cooper, Mize, Marshall, Kerr, Gordon, Thomson. Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.’ I said, ‘They lose a ball game, they go home, they have a nice dinner, they put their heads down on the pillow and go to sleep. Poor Mel Ott, he can’t sleep at night. He wants to win, he’s got a job to do for the owner of the ball club. But that doesn’t concern the players, they’re all getting good money.’ I said, ‘you surround yourself with this type of player, they’re real nice guys, sure—‘Howarya, Howarya’ and you’re going to finish down in the cellar with them.’”
So it’s more accurate to say that what Durocher actually meant was “Nice guys don’t always win.” but that isn’t as pithy or catchy, so we end up with nice guys being stigmatized forever.
There’s also a lot that can be said about deliberate misquotation for propagandistic purposes, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.
What are some of your favorite quotes (or misquotes)? Put them in the comments. Here are a few of mine – to the best of my knowledge, they are accurately attributed to the named sources:
“Just below the surface of our everyday world lie riches.”
— Robert Fripp
“In the banana republic of the heart, petty tyrants can drag one away by nightfall for some gentle terror.”
— Diane Ackerman
“The Church says: ‘The body is a sin’
Science says: ‘The body is a machine’
Advertising says: ‘The body is a business’
The body says: ‘I am a fiesta!’”
— Eduardo Galeano
“Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.”
— Tom Stoppard
“I don’t believe in ‘My country right or wrong’. My country wrong needs my help.”
— Peter Halsten Thorkelson
“It is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”
— Douglas Adams
“Liberals believe that those who disagree with them are misguided; conservatives believe that those who disagree with them are wrong.”
— Philip Taterczynski
“History is written by the victors, but it is the victims who write the memoirs.”
— Carol Tavris & Eliot Aronson