You’ve seen it before: that photograph of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, or Abraham Lincoln juxtaposed with a pithy saying that seems just like something they’d have come up with. Well, in many cases, those phrases are just a little too good to be true. Read on for 10 cases where the famous saying and its supposed author don’t match up.
1. “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” — not Gloria Steinem
A few variants of this phrase exist, most notably: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The saying is often attributed to feminist writer Gloria Steinem, or sometimes Erica Jong. Neither is correct: The modern incarnation of the phrase first appeared on a bathroom wall in Australia.
Devoted researchers on the Quote Investigator website have traced germs of the saying even earlier, to 19th-century American newspapers, who ran various lines comparing democracy without whiskey, fish without water, and women with husbands (all were bad). Later, the phrase “fish without a bicycle” was connected, satirically, to the idea of a man without religion. The Australian social activist Irina Dunn has taken credit for the modern phrase, saying she scrawled it in at least two bathrooms in Australia in 1970.
2. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." — not Nelson Mandela
Anti-apartheid hero and former South African president Nelson Mandela never said this. The phrase originated with Marianne Williamson, the New Age guru and erstwhile 2020 presidential candidate. According to Quote Investigator, the phrase first appeared in chapter seven of Williamson’s 1992 bestseller, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles.
The full quote is: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
Some people find the lines inspiring, but there’s no connection with Mandela. In fact, it’s not quite clear how the statesman was given credit, except that people think it’s the kind of thing he might have said.
3. “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” — not Abraham Lincoln
It’s a very diplomatic phrase, but Lincoln never said it. Quote Investigator traced the expression to 19th century humorist Charles Farrar Browne, also known as Artemus Ward. In 1863, Browne created a series of fake testimonials for some lectures he was performing, including a fictitious blurb from one “O. Abe.” This “Abe” supposedly said: “I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.”
The testimonial was reprinted in multiple places, and versions of the saying became associated with Lincoln. Later on, a story arose that Browne had read a lecture to Lincoln, who responded with a version of the phrase. Later still, Browne’s name was dropped from the situation entirely. The writers George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, and Muriel Spark have all used the phrase—but long after it was already circulating.
By the way, other things Lincoln never said include: “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years,” and “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power,” among many other examples.
4. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — not Gandhi
It’s a lovely saying, but it wasn’t Gandhi. He did say something similar: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
According to Quote Investigator, the more succinct version of the phrase doesn’t start appearing until the mid-1970s—decades after Gandhi’s death.
5. “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” — not Mark Twain
It’s funny enough that it seems like Twain could have said it. But, he didn’t. The man born Samuel Langhorne Clemens did have some funny quips about the weather, though, including the following: “I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all makes everything in New England but the weather. I don't know who makes that, but I think it must be raw apprentices in the weather-clerk's factory who experiment and learn how, in New England, for board and clothes, and then are promoted to make weather for countries that require a good article, and will take their custom elsewhere if they don't get it.”
Other funny things Twain didn’t say include: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint,” and “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
6. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” — not Freud
Although Freud was often pictured smoking a cigar, he never actually said this. According to Quote Investigator, the line first appears in the medical journal Psychiatry in 1950, where it’s attributed as a “famous remark” of Freud’s. But it wasn’t.
7. “Let them eat cake!” — not Marie Antoinette
Despite the stories that have circulated about her for centuries—like the one saying she delivered this line after being told the peasants had no bread—Marie Antoinette wasn’t a frivolous bimbo. In fact, she was smart, sensitive, and charitable, according to her biographer Lady Antonia Fraser.
Fraser and others have noted that versions of this line existed long before Antoinette’s birth. The tale was first told about Spanish princess Marie-Thérèse, who married Louis XIV in 1660. She supposedly suggested that the French people eat “la croûte de pâté,” or “the crust of the pâté.” Other royals were connected to the story over the years, and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau made the line famous in his 1766 Confessions, but he attributed it to “a great princess”—not one in specific.
8. “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” — not Marilyn Monroe
Monroe is credited with a number of popular sayings that appear next to her iconic image on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. It seems fairly clear that the credit for this one should actually go to Bette Midler, although she didn’t use those exact words. According to Quote Investigator, the original phrasing appeared in a newspaper supplement called “Family Weekly” in 1980, which included a section where ordinary people could ask questions of celebrities.
Midler was asked “Is it true that you really have a passion for shoes? If so, what kind do you prefer?” She responded: “The spike-heeled kind. They’re not always easy to find. I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world. Fortunately for the world, I have not found the correct footwear to achieve that goal. However, shoe stores across the nation can attest to my sincere and persistent efforts in that direction.”
9. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — not Albert Einstein
Einstein might have agreed with the sentiment, but he didn’t say it. Quote Investigator suggests crediting sociologist William Bruce Cameron, who wrote in a 1963 tome: “It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” There’s no reference to Einstein saying it until 1986, more than three decades after his death.
10. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” — not Voltaire
The famous French philosopher Voltaire, born François-Marie Arouet, died in 1778, but this saying surfaced in the early 20th century. It first appears in a 1906 book called The Friends of Voltaire and describes Voltaire’s attitude to a situation, not something he actually said. According to Quote Investigator, the historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall (writing as S. G. Tallentyre) wrote about a kerfuffle over a controversial text, De l’esprit (“On the Mind”) which was banned and publicly burned. Voltaire was no fan of the book, but thought the response was a bit much.
As Hall tells it: “‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ [Voltaire] had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.”
The fact that Hall enclosed the line in quotation marks makes it seem like something Voltaire said, but as Hall later made clear in her letters, it was a “Voltairean principle,” not his own exact words.