I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I know. Their names are who, what, why, when, how and where.
- Mark Twain
When misquoting a clever and previously-spoken saying, it is polite to attribute that misquote. But to whom? With so many people having lived and words having previously been spoken, it is hard to remember whose quote you are misremembering.
Fortunately, incorrect attributions of misquotes are rarely challenged if:
- the listener doesn’t care;
- you have face tattoos; or
- your attribution seems vaguely familiar and they don’t know any better.
This guide won’t help you with the first two points, but nobody does vaguely familiar like ThermoCow.
The Big Two
Virtually any misquote can be attributed to Mark Twain and/or Winston Churchill:
Like jail, marriage is an institution (though in a different sense of the word) - but who wants to live in jail?
- Mark Twain
You are ugly!
And you, sir, are drunk!
Yes, madam, but in the morning, you will still be ugly!
- Winston Churchill, in conversation with Mark Twain
You’ll never need to misattribute a misquote to anyone other than Twain or Churchill. This article could end right now and it would still be a worthwhile contribution to your life. But there are other familiar people who said things, so why stop there?
Voltaire was a saucy Frenchman with a sharp wit. Picture a skinnier, smarter Manu Feildel who really hated religion. This last part is important, because anything vaguely atheistic can be safely attributed to Voltaire.
Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man? Or something else I haven’t thought of, like man is a robot and God is a huge robot built by an even bigger robot named ’Admiral Universazoid’?
Russian authors are famous for their detailed descriptions of fictional rooms and clothing, and nobody described more fictional rooms or clothing than Tolstoy. People have heard of Tolstoy and have never read his books, making Tolstoy a great choice for your duller, wordier misquotes. For example:
The smallest minority on earth is the individual. The next smallest minority is a group of two people, and so on, up to 49.9999999999999% of all the people on earth.
- Tolstoy (in Crime and Punishment).
You might be thinking, “How can I get away with this? I have a friend who’s seen every episode of The Simpsons. He quotes it all the time.” I have news for you: half the jokes or weird voices your friend attributes to The Simpsons are not from The Simpsons at all. In fact, they’re not even funny.
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies when you’re having fun.
- The Simpsons
One to avoid - Shakespeare
If you’re new to misattributing misquotes, I don’t recommend Shakespeare. That’s because it is customary also to say the name of a play and a scene number that the misquote does not originate from. This would require you to know something that is common knowledge. If you want to misquote something that sounds vaguely Shakespearean, it is safest to misattribute it to Christopher Marlowe. Either the listener will assume you are making a clever highbrow quip, or they won’t know who you’re talking about.
I hope this has helped! Keep these tips in mind next time you create a meme with an inspirational or humorous misquote and a picture of an old-timey person. And remember: