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Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote.” This is true: powerful quotes provide neatly packed moxie, and can often say what we mean to say better than we could say it ourselves.
Emerson also said, “In fact it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.” We often misinterpret the original meaning of the quotes we quote, bending them to fit our own viewpoints.
Should the meaning of quotes change as society changes, in the same way we add new definitions to old words (see: literally)? Sure. Maybe. But it couldn’t hurt to know what the original speaker or writer intended, lest he be rolling in his grave.
Here are six famous quotes that are commonly misused:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” From “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
These oft-cited and, well, beautiful lines don’t necessarily reflect Keats’s philosophy. Within the poem, they’re written as lines of dialogue “said” by the Grecian urn, an object that, according to some scholars, Keats is criticizing for its flat and idealistic view of society. Writes W.H. Auden, “The Urn, for example, depicts, among other beautiful sights, the citadel of a hill town; it does not depict warfare, the evil which makes the citadel necessary.”
“Money is the root of all evil.” From The King James Bible
Call us pedantic, but the removal of a couple words from this quotation makes all the difference. The original source, Timothy 6:10 from The King James Bible, doesn’t claim that money itself is the root of all evil — greed, or the love of money is. This interpretation of the quote is reiterated in The Canterbury Tales.
“I took the [road] less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” From “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost’s poem does illustrate a lovely sentiment, but he never meant for his two roads to serve as a metaphor for the rewards reaped when exploring the unknown. In fact, Frost writes in the poem that while one road is appealing, the other is “just as fair,” and, as far as the number of travelers each has had, they’re “really about the same.”
The final stanza, then, refers to the narrator’s description of a choice he made earlier in life, while reflecting on it “ages and ages hence.”
Don’t worry, you’re not alone if you’ve been reading this poem all wrong. Even Frost’s contemporaries misread “The Road Not Taken.” He explained to a friend William H. Pritchard that the poem was written “about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took.”
“To thine own self be true” From Hamlet by William Shakespeare
These may be okay words to live by (although they’re a little too easy to parody – see Jude Law dopily musing, “How am I not myself?” in “I Heart Huckabees”). Within the context of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they are meant ironically. They’re uttered not by the play’s noble (if indecisive) protagonist, but by Polonius, the resident hypocrite, who is not supposed to be taken seriously.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” From Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
This is another Shakespeare quote that works well enough as a stand-alone mantra, but wasn’t originally said in earnest. It’s written in a letter to Malvolio, an egotistical and obnoxiously self-righteous character who shuns anything fun. It’s meant to stroke his already huge ego. The lines are repeated by Feste at the end of the play, in a mocking tone. Whether or not the Bard thought these words to be genuinely wise on their own is, of course, debatable, but we’re willing to bet that he’s poking fun at how grandiose the expression sounds.
“The devil is in the details.” Source unknown
This phrase differs from the others in that it is specifically misused, rather than misinterpreted. It’s a twist on an earlier saying that states the exact opposite: “God is in the details.” The original phrase is often attributed to German architect Mies van der Rohe, but, while he was likely detail-oriented, this connection has since been called into question. The 18th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations identifies the source as “anonymous,” but notes that it has been attributed to Gustave Flaubert (“Le bon Dieu est dans le détail”) and the 17th-century humorist Caspar Barlaeus (“God hides in the smallest places”). Regardless, it seems that a number of history’s greatest thinkers would disagree with the transformation of this idiom.