6 Famous Literary Quotes Everyone Uses Exactly Wrong
If you want to sound smart in front of your peers, pepper your conversations with famous quotes from Shakespeare or some other old-timey genius. After all, why bumble your way through clumsy sentences about why it's necessary to adjust to the social norms of the local populace when you can just say "When in Rome ..." and nod sagely?
The problem is that a lot of these quotes have been misused so badly and for so long that they mean the opposite of what most people think. Hell, at this point, using them correctly would confuse people. We're talking about famous quotes like ...
"This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True."
This pithy aphorism from Hamlet assures us that no matter what, you should never change who you are. Be true to yourself and everything will be all right. Ignore the haters! Variations on the theme have been quoted by artists such as Alanis Morissette, Van Morrison, and Dolly Parton. It is a popular choice for tattoos, and is prominently displayed on Alcoholics Anonymous coins, which is a confusing message to give an addict, if you think about it.
"Hookers and Jim Beam it is!"
The Real Meaning:
The source of this quote is the character Polonius. Polonius is the chief counselor to the villainous king, and a complete and utter nincompoop. He is reviled for his gasbaggery by all other members of the court, the queen can barely endure his speeches, and Hamlet openly calls him a damn fool before ultimately stabbing him to death by accident.
You wouldn't expect a character like that to sprout out hippie mantras about following your dreams, largely because he never did. Back in the Elizabethan days, the phrase wasn't the New Age wisdom it is today. Shakespeare's use of "self" would better be translated here as "your interests," and "true" should be taken to mean "loyal." So "This above all: To thine own self be true" actually means "Be loyal to your own interests above everything else" -- aka "Cover your ass at all costs."
Hamlet clearly didn't.
Which, to be fair, isn't a bad motto, provided you're a 1980s investment banker. Still, we can't help but feel that at least one of our more free-spirited readers is now frantically googling "laser tattoo removal."
And while we're on misused Shakespeare ...
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The original "Star-crossed lovers" are none other than Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, history's most famous fictional couple. Over time, the term has become synonymous with a love that is destined to overcome all odds. It's a lyrical staple used by artists ranging from the Smashing Pumpkins to No Doubt, and a common sight in sappy news pieces about adorable young couples. Our entire culture is teaching us to desire the kind of romance in which people could be described as "star-crossed."
That's a comet headed straight toward them.
The Real Meaning:
Here's a quick synopsis of Romeo & Juliet: A boy and a girl from rival families fall in love despite all the associated challenges, yadda yadda yadda, something, something, they both pointlessly die like goddamned idiots. They're the ur-example of a romance that completely, utterly fails.
Which brings us to what "star-crossed lovers" really means. Users of the quote correctly assume that "star" refers to fate or destiny, but stop before decoding the "crossed" portion. It is not "crossed" as in "paths cross," but "cross" as in how Sir Topham Hat feels when Thomas the Tank Engine does something fucking stupid. "Star-crossed lovers" literally means the stars are angry with Romeo and Juliet, and as such, their romance is destined to fail.
"The fuck you say, punk?" -- The Stars
The term "star-crossed" even has the same etymology as the word "disaster." "Dis" means against, and "aster" comes from "astro," meaning "planet" or "star." So, you know, unless you think cosmic doom is romantic as balls, maybe don't use this particular phrase in a long-winded wedding toast.
"Who Will Watch The Watchmen?"
This cerebral quote from the Roman poet Juvenal's Satire VI is present in roughly 120 percent of all opinion pieces ever written about the citizenry's inability to trust those chosen to govern them. And why not? Everyone knows that power eventually corrupts those who possess it, and few phrases describe this truism more artfully. As such, the line has seen use in lectures by Nobel Laureates, in news articles and thinkpieces questioning those in power, in a whole bunch of books, movies, and TV shows, and in the Alan Moore graphic novel which adopted the quote as its title, which we're willing to bet is probably where most of us heard it in the first place.
Oh who are we kidding. It was the film.
The Real Meaning:
To reiterate, the quote is from Juvenal's Satire VI. As little pointers such as the fact that its name is freaking "Satire" tactfully imply, this isn't some highbrow treatise on effective government. It's an essay to Juvenal's friend Postumus, meant to convince him not to marry, because according to Juvenal, women are all devious, cheating whores. Seriously, the entirety of the piece is a terrible misogynistic rant about the promiscuity and general conniving nature of women that would make even the Trumpiest goblin blush.
Juvenal begins the satire by telling Postumus he would be better off committing suicide or getting a boyfriend. He then continues, at great length, with his reasons and justifications as to why women are so faithless and devoid of character, while name-checking enough fetishes (such as wallowing in urine) to make a reader suspect that the whole thing might be wish-fulfillment on his part. When Juvenal finally makes it to his famous quote, it reads:
I know the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt:
"Bolt her in, constrain her!" But who can watch the watchmen?
They keep quiet about the girl's secrets and get her as their payment;
everyone hushes it up.
Here he is being crowned king of the chauvinist pigs.
So, yeah. Juvenal's line was never a "those in power will betray you" quote -- it was "your wife will totally fuck the people you hire to keep her locked in her room." Which may or may not be why Goodreads attributes the quote to Dan Brown these days.
"Hell Is Other People"
This credo of misanthropes everywhere comes from the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit, in which three people die and go to Hell, only to find that their Hell is being locked into a hotel room together. You've heard it from pretentious asswipes at parties and other crowded events. You've seen it clumsily used in a number of tacky TV shows. You've maybe even said it yourself, possibly in a moment of self-indulgent introversion. And all along, you've probably misunderstood the shit out of its meaning.
The Real Meaning:
Sartre's point was never that other people make your life hell. He was trying to tinker with the philosophical concept of "being for others," which holds that people function as mirrors of our psychological understanding of ourselves. Chad the giant douche has been a douche his entire life, but his douchiness is reflected by other people's reactions to him. The more people he interacts with, the more of his faults he will be forced to recognize via their actions.
Just gonna leave this here ...
The idea of Hell being other people refers to the idea that you would never feel bad about yourself if you didn't have other people to reflect your fears and insecurities. This is not just a bunch of psychology major speculation, either. Here's Sartre himself clearing up the issue:
"We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else's judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else's judgment enters [...] But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us."
"Suck on that, introverts."
In other words, Sartre's metaphorical hell was never about other people being dicks; it's about how everything you say and feel about yourself always involves how other people feel about you (or how you think they feel about you). Still, "Everyone but me is a terrible dick" is a far more enticing interpretation than Sartre's real point, so people started misinterpreting the phrase almost immediately.
At any rate, the next time someone tells you "Hell is other people," be sure to point out how awful a person they must be, since being around other people causes them to realize the true level of their shittiness. That'll teach 'em other people aren't so bad!
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"East Is East And West Is West And Never The Twain Shall Meet."
This lofty truism comes from "The Ballad Of East And West" by Rudyard Kipling, the beloved author of The Jungle Book. The solemn poem examines the differences between cultures and featured the "never the twain shall meet" quote, which promptly became shorthand for vast, irreconcilable differences between cultures and the inevitable conflict they produce. "Cat people like cats and dog people like dogs, and never the twain shall meet."
The Real Meaning:
Sure, it sounds like Kipling's saying "Hey guys, you know what? Trying to come to an understanding with people who are different from us is a complete waste of time. We should duke it out to determine who ends up with the short end of the stick. Something something colonialism."
"Queen, country, white man's burden. Can I have my Nobel Prize now?"
But Kipling is in fact saying the exact opposite. Even if the man remains deplorably racist by the standards of our day, "The Ballad Of East And West" is a tale of an initial clash between two cultures that ends in great mutual respect. The "East is East ... " line is the first one in the poem, which immediately continues like this:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho' they come from the ends of the earth!
Then the tale goes on to describe a Hollywood-style confrontation between a British officer and a South Asian borderlands chieftain, and things get so awesome that the men gain respect for one another and make peace. Basically, like the "Try on the sunglasses!" fight from They Live.
The "East is east..." line is an allusion to the well-known (at the time) Psalm 103: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." Kipling spends the rest of the poem methodically dismantling the idea of different cultures never being able to coexist. But hey, no one reads poems after the first couplet, right?
"Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent"
Shakespeare again! If he was alive today, he'd probably spend all of his time on Twitter complaining about this shit.
"Now is the winter of our discontent" comes from Richard III, and seems uncharacteristically straightforward. Winter and discontent both suck, so being in the winter of your discontent means that you are at the suckiest point of suckiness that you have ever experienced, right?
Like a high-schooler trying to understand Shakespeare.
News organizations have adapted the fancy phrase to describe various dire circumstances, especially when talking about economics and, for some reason, sports. It has seen use in music by people like Pat Benatar, Van Morrison, and Marilyn Manson, three artists who apparently share a love of Shakespeare but otherwise couldn't have less to do with each other.
The Real Meaning:
This is maybe the most egregiously out-of-context quote on this list. Here's what the line looks like in the text of the play:
"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."
That's Gloucester (the future Richard III) speaking, and as you can see, he isn't exactly indulging in some emo self-pitying lament about how much stuff sucks. He is specifically saying that the hard times are over. The winter of our discontent has been made glorious, and all the clouds are going away. After winter comes spring and summer -- things are getting better.
Maybe he finally found somebody willing to give him a horse.
Also, it's worth noting that Richard's summery glory is somewhat brought about by the fact that he's planning to murder and connive his way to the throne of England, currently occupied by the "Sun of York" (his brother). So technically the full context of the quote is: "Things are looking up, and I'm about to murder my brother." Who knows, maybe somewhere there's a guy who is indeed using it in exactly that situation right now. If so, good job, guy!
For more reason intellectual are actually dummies, check out The 5 Most Frequently Misused Proverbs and 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong.
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