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From Marilyn to Shakespeare: how well do you know history’s most bungled quotes?

·10-min read
<span>Composite: Alamy</span>
Composite: Alamy

The internet is full of wonky attributions and made-up catchphrases, from real life and pop culture. Can you tell your Attenborough from your Armstrong?


Those of you who had “Sir David Attenborough has beef with Adelaide shopping mall plaque” on your 2021 bingo cards must have done a victory dance this week. A local conservationist recognised some “honeybee propaganda”, attributed to the legendary naturalist, on a plaque accompanying a Westfield Tea Tree Plaza mural and alerted the relevant authorities (i.e. Sir David himself).

The plaque has been done away with, but plenty more misquotes and misattributions remain. If you’ve ever seen a brush-script quote adorning a black and white photo, a painted sunset, or an embroidered couch cushion and wondered “Hang on a minute …”, this quiz is for you. Last one to finish gets their name attached to a Spider-Man quote on an inspirational $2 shop fridge magnet.

Related: Buzz off: David Attenborough intervenes after Adelaide shopping centre bee plaque misquotes him

  1. Which of the following meme-able things did Marilyn Monroe actually say?

    1. “If you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best.”

    2. “Don’t judge a woman until you’ve walked a mile in her high heels.”

    3. "Well behaved women seldom make history."

    4. None of the above.

  2. Actress Sally Field accepts her 1985 Academy Award for best actress.
    Actress Sally Field accepts her 1985 Academy Award for best actress.

    Come awards season, people like to “do a Sally Field” by yelling, “You like me! You really like me!” Did the inimitable Ms Field actually say that in her Oscars speech of 1985?

    1. Yes

    2. No

  3. If you follow any #girlboss feminist influencers on Instagram, chances are you’ve seen the quote “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” attributed to Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem. In 2000, Steinem pulled Time Magazine up for crediting her, attesting that the phrase actually originated with the Australian activist and writer Irina Dunn. Where is Dunn reported to have originally written the phrase?

    1. In a university newspaper

    2. On a dunny door

    3. In an editorial for The Age

    4. Spray-painted on the window of a wedding dress shop

  4. William Shakespeare’s influence on the English language is so immense that he is often credited with penning phrases, quotes and edicts that were actually written long after his death. Which of the following quotes was, in fact, written by Shakespeare?

    1. “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”

    2. “The pen is mightier than the sword”

    3. “The course of true love never did run smooth”

    4. “It was the best of times / It was the worst of times”

  5. One especially famous, if possibly apocryphal, quote that has been attributed to everyone from Frank Zappa to Elvis Costello to Thelonius Monk, pertains to the art of music criticism. It runs: “Writing about music is like — ”

    1. Knitting about football

    2. Painting about physics

    3. Dancing about architecture

    4. Singing about economics

  6. Neil Armstrong.
    Neil Armstrong.

    For years, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong took umbrage with the quote most famously attributed to him: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. What was his issue with the quote?

    1. He claimed to have actually said “that’s one small step for a man”

    2. He hated being associated with the quote

    3. He claimed to have said “and womankind” but the clip cut out

    4. He tried to copyright the phrase but NASA wouldn’t let him

  7. James Cameron’s 1998 “I’m the king of the world!” Oscar moment made cringe highlight reels forevermore, but when he picked up the Golden Globe for best director in 2010, he made headlines for nerdier reasons. Which “conlang” (constructed language) did he pepper his speech with?

    1. Klingon

    2. Elvish

    3. Na’vi

    4. Parseltongue

  8. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is a witticism incorrectly attributed to which titan of psychoanalytic theory?

    1. Donald Winnicott

    2. Sigmund Freud

    3. Carl Jung

    4. Melanie Klein

  9. The big reveal at climax of The Empire Strikes Back has lived on in everything from T-shirts to posters to quotes in other movies. There’s just one problem: Darth Vader never said “Luke, I am your father” in the film. What did he actually say?

    1. “It’s true: I am your father.”

    2. “No. I am your father.”

    3. “Luke, your father is dead.”

    4. “No, Luke, it is I: your father.”

  10. Ernest Hemingway.
    Ernest Hemingway.

    “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is a six-word work of flash fiction most commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though numerous deep-dives by researchers have failed to uncover any conclusive evidence that it was, in fact, he who penned it. Nevertheless, we have a fellow author to thank for keeping the dream of "baby shoes" alive: which science fiction star is said to have legitimised the Hemingway legend?

    1. Isaac Asimov

    2. Octavia Butler

    3. Arthur C. Clarke

    4. Frank Herbert

Solutions

1:D - “The girl with the horizontal walk” is second only to Shakespeare in the misquote Olympics; anything that looks good on an Instagram tile or a Tumblr GIF-set has probably been attributed to her. But, as a very funny Elle investigation into Marilyn misquotes demonstrated in 2015, Monroe presciently addressed her reputation as a quote-machine in a 1956 interview with the Saturday Evening Post: “If I'm going to have that kind of influence, I want to be sure it's because of something I've actually said or written.", 2:B - Accepting her second best actress gong, for Places In The Heart, what she really said was more nuanced, reflecting upon the unconventional path she took to Hollywood glory and how she hadn’t quite believed it when she first won, for Normal Rae. “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. This time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”, 3:B - In fact, Dunn scribbled her famous epithet on TWO dunny doors, paraphrasing from a text she was reading in 1970, for her honours year in English literature and language. As she reminisced in 2002: "I scribbled the phrase on the backs of two toilet doors, would you believe, one at Sydney University where I was a student, and the other at Soren's Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo, a seedy suburb in south Sydney. The doors, I have to add, were already favoured graffiti sites.", 4:C - That’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1, Line 134. The rest are, in order, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam:27, 1850; Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s historical play Cardinal Richelieu, 1839; and Charles Dickens, in his A Tale Of Two Cities, from 1859., 5:C - Various investigations have narrowed down the likely candidate for this quote’s originator, with many landing on comedian Martin Mull; a February 1979 issue of the Detroit Free Press contains a column, Bob Talbert’s Quote Bag, included the following entry: “Martin Mull, Comedian-musician on music criticism: ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.'", 6:A - In 2006, a computer programmer backed up Armstrong’s claims, analysing the recording and clearing things up once and for all: a 35-millisecond-long blip between "for" and "man", that would have been too brief for most humans to hear, revealed the indefinite article., 7:C - Thanking his cast, he referred to Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana using the language of Avatar’s big blue cat people: “I just wanna say, ‘oel ngati kameie, Ma tsmukan, ma tsmuke’”, which translates to “I see you, my brother, my sister”. Conjecture continues to roil in conlang forums in dark corners of the internet as to whether he intending to leave out either Sigourney or Zoe, since he seemed to get the grammar wrong: “aytsmuke” is the Na’vi word for “sisters”., 8:B - “The father of dreams” might have been interested in both the phallic and the symbolic, but it seems highly unlikely that he tossed off – as it were – this particular turn of phrase. A 2001 investigation by Alan C. Elms, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, revealed that the quote was almost certainly apocryphal: “Not only do we lack any written record of Freud as the direct source, but also there are many reasons to conclude that Freud never said it or anything like it.”, 9:B - Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay plays the scene with stark simplicity. Luke yells, of Obi Wan’s tales of his late father, “He told me enough. He told me you killed him.” Vader’s reply, correcting his estranged son, brings Luke’s worldview crashing down around him - it’s enough to make you throw yourself into a reactor shaft!, 10:C - In 2001, Clarke sent a letter to John Robert Colombo, offering this anecdote about Hemingway: "He's supposed to have won a $10 bet (no small sum in the '20s) from his fellow writers. They paid up without a word. ... Here it is. I still can't think of it without crying— FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN." Zack Wortman thought of some sequels in a 2016 New Yorker column, beginning with: “For sale: baby shoes. Really big”, “For hire: giant baby. Very amusing”, “Rent baby for fun, scary evening”, “Have you seen enormous baby? Escaped.” and “Please help. Huge baby at large.” Take that, Ernie!

Scores

  1. 10 and above.

    You have achieved quote attribution nirvana: you have passed out the other wide of “well, actually…” into actively satirising inspirational quotes. You know that the greatest meme ever made is the one featuring the lyrics to CrazyTown’s Butterfly superimposed over an image of Vin Diesel and attributed to Charles Bukowski.

  2. 9 and above.

    Once or twice you’ve had to consult Snopes when someone’s bailed you up about a quote you’ve wrongly credited on your Instagram stories, but for the most part you know your Shakespeare from your Gandhi, and your Monroe from your Supre T-shirt.

  3. 8 and above.

    Once or twice you’ve had to consult Snopes when someone’s bailed you up about a quote you’ve wrongly credited on your Instagram stories, but for the most part you know your Shakespeare from your Gandhi, and your Monroe from your Supre T-shirt.

  4. 7 and above.

    Once or twice you’ve had to consult Snopes when someone’s bailed you up about a quote you’ve wrongly credited on your Instagram stories, but for the most part you know your Shakespeare from your Gandhi, and your Monroe from your Supre T-shirt.

  5. 6 and above.

    You discovered that the inspirational poster print you bought at a market is actually an apocryphal phrase credited to twenty or more different celebs – but you kept it because you feel they are still good words to live by, even if they weren’t actually uttered by your favourite writer.

  6. 5 and above.

    You discovered that the inspirational poster print you bought at a market is actually an apocryphal phrase credited to twenty or more different celebs – but you kept it because you feel they are still good words to live by, even if they weren’t actually uttered by your favourite writer.

  7. 4 and above.

    You discovered that the inspirational poster print you bought at a market is actually an apocryphal phrase credited to twenty or more different celebs – but you kept it because you feel they are still good words to live by, even if they weren’t actually uttered by your favourite writer.

  8. 3 and above.

    You once wrote an entire school book report about the work of William Shakespeare but accidentally quoted the lyrics of Shakespeare’s Sister. You frequently say the punchline first, then struggle to remember the rest of the joke.

  9. 2 and above.

    You once wrote an entire school book report about the work of William Shakespeare but accidentally quoted the lyrics of Shakespeare’s Sister. You frequently say the punchline first, then struggle to remember the rest of the joke.

  10. 1 and above.

    You once wrote an entire school book report about the work of William Shakespeare but accidentally quoted the lyrics of Shakespeare’s Sister. You frequently say the punchline first, then struggle to remember the rest of the joke.

  11. 0 and above.

    You once wrote an entire school book report about the work of William Shakespeare but accidentally quoted the lyrics of Shakespeare’s Sister. You frequently say the punchline first, then struggle to remember the rest of the joke.

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