People love famous quotations, because it's way easier to just copy and paste something that someone else already said than think up all those difficult thoughts yourself and translate them all the way into words. But be sure you know where these inspiring words actually came from. You might think you're quoting the careful eloquence of the Great Emancipator, when in reality you're rehashing the disjointed rants of the Ultimate Warrior. It happens more often than you'd think. For example ...
#5. Nelson Mandela's Spokespeople Are Sick and Tired of Everyone Attributing a Cheesy Self-Help Quote to Him
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Where You Think It's From:
Nelson Mandela sits right up there with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the most important human rights campaigners of all time. It's no surprise that his inauguration speech has become so legendary:
"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 does not serve the world. ... As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
So work that dress! Black and white can mix!
Hillary Clinton used the quote during her 1998 commencement speech at Howard University, and the movie Akeelah and the Bee turns to it for a lesson on empowerment, to name some famous examples. Yes, after a lifetime of fighting for racial equality, Mandela got up to that podium and relayed a message that was truly important to him. And it was basically: "You go, girl!"
But Really ...
Loath as we are to reveal Clinton's white belt in Google-fu, Nelson Mandela never uttered these words. The quote actually comes from a self-help book by Marianne Williamson called A Return to Love. Williamson, it turns out, is a new age guru whose brand of schmaltzy love-yourself advice earned her a place among Oprah's all-time favorite bullshitters. Attributing this quote to Mandela is like attributing a passage from The Secret to Gandhi.
He did preach a good two-thirds of Eat, Pray, Love.
The misattribution of this quote is so frequent that the folks at the Nelson Mandela Foundation have included it in the FAQ about Mandela in a desperate attempt to keep themselves from tearing their handsome salt-and-pepper hair out. Even the South African Embassy in D.C. has had to waste their time clearing the confusion up a few times since Mandela's inauguration in '94.
We're sure Williamson doesn't mind all the free publicity that comes with the everlasting confusion. She once said, "As honored as I would be had President Mandela quoted my words, indeed he did not. I have no idea where that story came from, but I am gratified that the paragraph has come to mean so much to so many people." Nice sentiment!
Mandela himself might not have shared it, though. When promoting the official book of Nelson Mandela quotes, the Nelson Mandela Foundation started out by saying, "Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is one of the most quoted -- and misquoted -- people in the world. This is ironic given that for much of his adult life he could not be quoted at all."
That's the politest "Up yours, hippie" we've ever read.
#4. A Random Tweeter Somehow Becomes Martin Luther King Jr.
Where You Think It's From:
After it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a raid by U.S. Marines, much of the nation, still stung by the atrocities of 9/11, took to the streets in celebration. But there were many on social media who rebuffed the trend by stoically quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."
Drink at Sully's wake, but celebrate his life, not his death.
The quote spread virally through social media, egged on by celebrities like Penn Jillette as a reminder that we shouldn't be so quick to celebrate the death of even a mass murderer, lest we become more like him.
But Really ...
You can make your own decision about whether these are wise words or not, but don't take it on the authority of Dr. King -- he never said them. It didn't take long for people familiar with MLK's work to suspect that this quote they'd never heard before might be bullshit. When it didn't turn up in even the most comprehensive collections of King's speeches, people started to wonder just who would be crazy enough to try to pass off a fake quote as the words of one of history's most famous, celebrated, and thoroughly documented figures.
"His lies were so exquisite, I almost wept." -Oscar Wilde
Accusations turned pretty quick to Penn Jillette. Given that he was famous for debunking false facts as the host of the show Bullshit! most people figured that it was a stunt -- he made it up deliberately as some kind of ruse to show how myths spread. But the truth was far more mundane: Jillette did not mastermind the viral Internet hoax, and was even forced to admit that he was taken in by it himself, despite the fact that not falling for bullshit is basically his one job.
So where did it really come from? The words belonged to Jessica Dovey, a 24-year-old English teacher living in Tokyo. When she read about bin Laden's death and all the spiteful partying that came of it, she took to Facebook to express her discomfort with the celebratory mood in America, then followed it up with a legitimate Martin Luther King Jr. quote:
Soon enough, her comment was shared among her contacts. As it passed on, the character limitations on Twitter did away with those pesky quotation marks, then melded her words with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. Finally, people stopped tweeting those useless last few sentences entirely. The ones that actually belonged to King. This whole stupid game of Internet telephone took less than a day.
You would think that the fake quote would disappear once bin Laden's death became old news, but as has become evident from the deaths of Moammar Gadhafi and most recently Margaret Thatcher, the quote will just keep getting dredged up each time a much maligned historical figure dies. And that's fine: It's a good quote. Just be sure to attribute it properly, even if "-Jessica from Facebook" seems a little less impressive than "-The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr."
#3. Timothy Leary's Hippie Followers Get Played by the Establishment
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Where You Think It's From:
Back in January 1967, hippies from all over America gathered in San Francisco for the Human Be-In, a day-long affair celebrating the ideals of the counterculture. It was there that hippie hero and notorious drug promoter Dr. Timothy Leary, a key speaker, urged his listeners to "turn on, tune in, drop out." The slogan caught on, perfectly encapsulating as it did the hippie search for a more authentic way of life -- one that rejected authority, shunned corporate culture, and made a home in the margins of conventional society. While taking lots and lots of drugs, but very few baths.
Mud orgies aren't baths.
Leary went on to instruct them to "drop out of high school, drop out of college, drop out of graduate school." Nobody tells you that kind of thing, man! It's the kind of authentic, down-to-earth wisdom that only a guru like Leary has the heart to voice.
But Really ...
Two decades after unleashing the catchphrase into the soon-to-be undereducated and unemployable minds of hopeful young people, Leary admitted that he actually pinched the quote from his friend Marshall McLuhan, the ubermensch of advertising theory in the '60s.
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Suddenly, Mad Men's LSD episode makes sense.
McLuhan was a massively important media theorist who had an enormous influence on the advertising world, and he worked as a consultant for both IBM and General Motors. McLuhan coined such ubiquitous phrases as "the medium is the message" and "global village." McLuhan's thoughts were so far from the hippie spectrum that he didn't even believe that such a thing as marginalized outsiders existed (which is pretty much what Leary's followers were striving to be). Rather, he believed margins were manufactured by the reigning culture, and that personalities were completely controlled and manipulated by media.
Now, maybe a brilliant counterculture intellectual like Leary appropriated the slogan from another brilliant intellectual who didn't believe in the counterculture at all and used it as a rallying cry because he understood the irony. But it looks like some of his unemployed, drop-out acolytes failed to appreciate it.