Great Things that Great People Probably Didn’t Say

Vern Scott
3 min readNov 29, 2022


Though wise quotes have come through the ages from many, there is a phenomenon where they are erroneously applied to a few. Have a strategic war comment? That automatically goes to Napoleon. A proverb or homily? Ben Franklin. A wry or curmudgeonly statement? Try Mark Twain, Sir Winston Churchill, or WC Fields. Here are some of the more famous quotations that these great people so wisely didn’t say….

Perhaps the greatest-ever source for a reliable term paper misquote…

Abraham Lincoln: Who can forget these wise quotes not said by our greatest President?

1) “Whatever you are, be a good one” (thought to have been first stated by William Makepeace Thackery)

2) “You can’t fool all the people all the time” (first stated in 1684 by French author Jacques Abbadie)

3) “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool that to speak and remove all doubt” (a similar quote in the Bible is “”Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”)

(Herfuth, 2015)

Mark Twain: Another popular quote machine was Mark Twain, but did he say these things?

1) “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow” (probably Oscar Wilde)

2) “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” (possibly said by the mother of American author H. Jackson Brown)

3) The secret of getting ahead is getting started” (possibly first said by Agatha Christie)

4) “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” (Charles Dudley Warner, Hartford Courant, 1897)

(Rogers, 2022)

Benjamin Franklin: Even Ben Franklin, the guy that probably really said most of the things he said, probably didn’t say these things:

1) “A penny saved is a penny earned” (he said “A penny saved is two pence clear”)

2) “Show me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” (Possibly originated by Xun Kuang, a 4th Century BC Confucian philosopher)

3) Lighthouses are more useful than churches” (after surviving a near shipwreck, Franklin went to a church and quipped that though he’d like to express monetary gratitude to the church, a lighthouse might be a better buy)

4) “Any fool can condemn, criticize, and complain…and most fools do” (Actually Dale Carnegie)

(, 2022)

WC Fields: WC Fields was a very reliable quote machine, except he didn’t actually say these things:

1) “Anyone that hates dogs and children can’t be all bad” (Said by Leo Rosten, who introduced Fields at a dinner party)

2) Woman: “You’re drunk!” Fields: “and you’re crazy. I’ll be sober tomorrow and you’ll be crazy the rest of your life!” (said by Fields in the 1934 movie “It’s a Gift”, but attributed to a similar conversation within an 1882 session of Parliament)

(, 2022), (Brown, 2021)

It seems like he might’ve said the curmudgeonly things he didn’t say…

Winston Churchill: Like Fields, Churchill was always good for a curmudgeonly quote, yet also didn’t say these things:

1) Lady Astor “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee“ Churchill “If I were your husband I’d drink it!” (a similar anecdote was reported as a subway conversation in an 1899 Oswego, NY newspaper)

2) “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions” (the first known instance of a similar quote was in a 1953 Seattle newspaper)

(Brown, 2021)

Napoleon Bonaparte: Napoleon is often quoted on matters of war, yet many of the quotes attributed to him were either reworded or quotes from earlier commanders:

1) “An army travels on its stomach” (he actually said “The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.”)

2) “An army of sheep led by a lion, is better than an army of lions led by a sheep” (Attributed to many, possibly originating with Alexander the Great)

(Selin, 2014)



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health