As Hesketh Pearson put it, ‘Misquotations are the only quotations that are never misquoted.’ To see if he’s right, we’ve compiled a Top Ten list containing what we think are the commonest expressions in English which are misquotes of their original literary idioms. How many of these did you know started out as something different? And do you think that they are still ‘misquotations’, if the phrases go on to gain a new life of their own? When does a misquote become simply a quote, or something more universal – a ‘saying’ or expression?
Oh, and have we left off any good examples of literary misquoting?
1. Me Tarzan, you Jane. This line doesn’t appear in any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original books, nor in the films; it probably arose as a compacting of the dialogue exchange between Tarzan and Jane in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man.
2. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. This translation from Dante’s Inferno – the words are inscribed above the entrance to hell in the medieval poem – is a misquotation of H. F. Cary’s 1814 English translation, ‘All hope abandon ye who enter here.’ It was probably misquoted because the misquotation rolled off the tongue better.
3. To gild the lily. This is a telescoping of a longer phrase, from Shakespeare’s King John: ‘To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.’ And while we’re dealing with the Bard…
4. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well. This is Hamlet’s exclamation when he is confronted with the skull of the jester who had entertained him when he was a young boy. That last word should be ‘Horatio’ rather than ‘well’ – but for one reason or another the name of Hamlet’s trusty friend is left out of the usual quotation when it is uttered by people (usually, and aptly, in jest) and the word ‘well’ is brought in to round off the phrase.
5. Pride goes before a fall. Another telescoping of a longer expression, this time from the Bible: ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18). As with the previous example, this is probably because ‘pride goes before a fall’ provides a shorter and snappier variation on the original, longer phrase.
6. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. This oft-used phrase originated in a couple of lines from William Congreve’s 1697 play The Mourning Bride: ‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.’ Congreve also appears to have coined – or been one of the first to use – the phrase ‘kiss and tell’, in his 1695 play Love for Love.
7. Britannia rules the waves. In the patriotic British anthem, the line is actually ‘Britannia, rule the waves’, with the second word being in the imperative mood rather than the indicative.
8. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The actual line from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is ‘nor any drop to drink’. For more on Coleridge’s classic poem, see our post about Coleridge here.
9. Fresh fields and pastures new. A misquotation of a line from John Milton’s Lycidas (1637): ‘Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.’
10. Elementary, my dear Watson. As we’ve discussed in our previous post on ten facts about Sherlock Holmes, this expression doesn’t appear in the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and first turns up in literature in a novel by P. G. Wodehouse. Complimentary, my dear Wodehouse!