5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)


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 ...

Nelson Mandela's Spokespeople Are Sick and Tired of Everyone Attributing a Cheesy Self-Help Quote to Him

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Sion Touhig/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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."

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

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.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
via Wikimedia

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!

THE PHENOMENAL 1 BESISFLLER A RETURN TO LOVE Reflections the on Principles of A COURSE IN MIRACLES Marianne Williamson
via Amazon.com

And now she's got even more free publicity. A Return to Love, available on Amazon!

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.

A Random Tweeter Somehow Becomes Martin Luther King Jr.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
White House Press Office

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."

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

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.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Napoleon Sarony

"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:

Jessica Dovey I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate
Jessica Dovey/The Atlantic

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."

Timothy Leary's Hippie Followers Get Played by the Establishment

A. Jones/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Mark Goff

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.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Kheng guan Toh/Photos.com

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.


A Kurt Vonnegut Misquotation Confirms Everything Kurt Vonnegut Hates About the Internet

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Where You Think It's From:

In the fall of 1997, the transcript of a commencement speech given by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT began making the rounds on the Internet. The speech was pure Vonnegut: absurdist, cranky old grandpa giving wise if irreverent advice to the younglings. You might recognize it better as the lyrics to "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," a hit single that director Baz Lurhmann made of the speech set to music:

"Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97. Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now."

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

"What, no shout-out to West Campus? This speaker sucks."

The speech goes on to drop such gems of advice as "do one thing every day that scares you" and "keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements." Vonnegut's wife, who was apparently unaware of her own husband's writing and where he was doing commencement speeches, was sent the transcript by friends and felt overjoyed by how clever her husband really was to have come up with these words (his books, we guess, left her unimpressed). She forwarded the transcript to their kids, probably with a subject line that read, "Finally, your dad does something we can be proud about."

But Really ...

You've probably never heard of Mary Schmich, which is too bad for Schmich, because she's the real author of the speech that half the world can quote verbatim. In actual fact, it's not a speech at all, but a column that Schmich wrote for the Chicago Tribune.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images

1999's "No Scrubs" also began as a Tribune editorial.

The irony here is that the whole fiasco only served to vindicate Vonnegut's massively low opinion of the Internet. On the Sunscreen Speech affair, Vonnegut told the New York Times, "I don't know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet."

Vonnegut was a lifelong neo-Luddite who refused to create an email address. At an early moment in the history of the Internet when people felt most optimistic about the potential for the Web to make the world a better place, Vonnegut compared the groundswell to the naive optimism surrounding the invention of television -- which turned out not to be the savior of man after all, but the place he went to check up on his Kardashians and Duck Dynasties.

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Christopher Ingram/Photos.com

So it goes.

And this being the Internet, where the only thing that proliferates faster than false information is a good conspiracy theory, people went further and accused Vonnegut of some clever bit of viral marketing. According to them, Mary Schmich was a character in Vonnegut's new novel, and the whole thing was a publicity stunt. To which we imagine Vonnegut shook his head, chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes, drew a bunch of stylized little assholes, and wrote the word "Internet" above each and every one of them.

Nike Urges Everyone to Embrace the Willpower of a Double Murderer

5 Famous Quotes With Inspiring Origins (That Are Total BS)
Aaron Davidson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Where You Think It's From:

In 1988, the Nike sports company came up with one of the most successful ad campaigns of all time, and its beauty came with its simplicity: "Just Do It." The phrase didn't just inspire people to go out and look stylish; it inspired them to live life to the fullest. Unlike competing brands such as Reebok, which targeted fitness junkies, Nike's campaign went after couch potatoes, women, teens, and other people who needed an inspirational push to get out there, get active, and buy the product that truly believed in them: overpriced plastic shoes from Malaysia.


Nike intended no innuendo with the slogan. Or with their logo.

But Really ...

In the documentary Art & Copy, which traces the origins of several catchy slogans, advertising executive Dan Wieden revealed where he came up with the phrase that rocketed Nike to the top of the shoe business. He took a little inspiration from a multiple murderer named Gary Gilmore.

ORTLAG 35142
Clark County Prosecutor's Office

Gary's mother was a Mormon. For his last meal, he ordered coffee.

During the summer of '76, Gilmore had gone on a two-day robbery spree that resulted in him unapologetically shooting two men dead. When the law caught up to him, he was sentenced to death, and he welcomed the decision. Anti-death penalty activists tried their damnedest to stop Gilmore from being executed, but Gilmore was determined to die, so much so that he refused appeals, fired his lawyers, and told everyone to butt the hell out.

In the end, he got his way and became the first person in 10 years to be executed in America. As he faced his own impending death, his last words were "Let's do it."

U.S Army

Or possibly "Let's duet"; Gilmore didn't clarify.

Wieden, who was looking for a new advertising slogan at the time, found Gilmore's git-'er-done attitude toward murder and execution oddly inspiring. Of course, the slogan needed a little tweaking, but not much. And that's how a bloodthirsty killer's last words became the voice of a generation and made Nike shoes into a brand that teenagers would literally kill to have.

Related Reading: Here's an insane quote that's NOT bullshit: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist." - Karl Marx. Click here for further mind blowingness. Or click here to see Cracked editor Kristi Harrison revise some famous quotes for accuracy. If you're not pithed-out yet, we've got the greatest trash-talk in war history to set you up.

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