Nothing makes us feel smart like repeating something an actual smart person once said. Why bother coming up with your own witty retort, when you're pretty sure you once read about something Winston Churchill may or may not have said to some other dick, way back in the day? Or maybe it was Oscar Wilde. Or maybe nobody actually said that at all, and you're just mashing up half-remembered takes in your head. You see the problem: Some of the most popular quotes from some of the most famous geniuses don't actually mean what we think they do. For example ...
You know Murphy and his damn Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." In other words: The universe is always out to get you. It doesn't matter if you plan ahead and prepare for all eventualities -- something will always go wrong and screw you over. Yep, the fundamental rules of the universe are why our last camping trip went to shit; it's not because we planned it at the last second and brought nothing but a Taco Bell combo box.
What It Actually Means:
The original meaning was more like, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong ... when you've got these chuckleheads for assistants." The Murphy in Murphy's Law wasn't some historic genius or ancient philosopher, but a U.S. Air Force engineer named Edward A. Murphy. His statement was prompted by a military experiment involving a rocket-powered sled, presumably devised as a way to capture and devour a particularly elusive roadrunner.
Murphy was tasked with installing sensors of his own design on the sled, to measure its speed, but once the test was completed, the sensors hadn't measured shit. Murphy blamed the malfunction on his assistants, saying:
"If there's any way they can do it wrong, they will." Yes, the original version of this popular proverb was just a passive-aggressive boss chewing out his employees (for something that might have actually been his fault).
As the sled experiment continued, other members of the team distilled Murphy's phrase to a more familiar form ("If anything can go wrong, it will"), and let it serve as a reminder to make their designs as idiot-proof as possible. Murphy's Law was never meant to imply there's a sitcom-like rule that the universe is out to get you. Just that your boss thinks you suck. Of course, this is all evidence of another universal law that generally holds true: "Shit rolls downhill."
One of many pearls of wisdom attributed to Marilyn Monroe, the phrase "Well-behaved women seldom [or rarely] make history" is most often used in one of two ways: A) as a call of encouragement for women to stand up, get noticed, and carve their place into the annals of history, or B) as an excuse for going out and getting hammered. After all, Monroe, bless her soul, was pretty good at both those things.
What It Actually Means:
It means that well-behaved women seldom make history ... but they should. You've probably already guessed that this quote wasn't actually from Marilyn Monroe -- it was printed 14 years after her death by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. In 1976, she published a scholarly article documenting the eulogies of colonial women, which sounds almost as fun and sexy as a Marilyn Monroe flick, sure. In her analysis of those eulogies -- often the only records of these women's lives -- Ulrich made the following observation:
Ulrich's message wasn't "fuck the rules," it was more "can I get a little love for all my virtuous sisters in the house?" Her work is all about celebrating the ordinary people who slowly enact societal change over the decades, but are forgotten by history because they do it quietly. In her book A Midwife's Tale, for instance, Ulrich combed through the (at first glance, exceedingly dull) journal of an average 18th-century American midwife -- uncovering the previously unknown economic and cultural impact of midwifery in the country. For instance: How many of you knew "midwifery" was a word? We sure didn't.
Unfortunately, Ulrich herself is pretty well-behaved, so people will probably continue crediting her words to more "unruly" women.
We can just picture it: Sir Charles Darwin was probably taking part in some heated debate about evolution with a bunch of religious zealots, when they asked him to explain how his dumb monkey ideas jived with the Bible. And Darwin shut them all down with his famous, history-changing zinger: "Science has nothing to do with Christ."
What It Actually Means:
Darwin didn't hate religion -- he just didn't feel qualified to write about it. According to his son, ol' Chuck would get letters from people asking him about moral and spiritual topics he simply didn't feel qualified to discuss. In 1879, at age 70, he replied to one such letter like so:
In other words: "What are you asking me for?" He never set out to disprove the existence of God, and didn't even consider himself an atheist:
So, how did Darwin earn his religion-hating reputation? Blame his pal, T.H. Huxley. After On The Origin Of The Species was printed, the British Association for Advancement of Science held their annual meeting at Oxford and invited the clergy, since the two groups had been friendly up to that point. Some clergy members embraced Darwin's theory, some had doubts, and some were openly hostile. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce was one of the latter -- he flat-out asked Huxley if the gorilla he descended from was on his father's side, or his mother's.
Huxley shot back by saying that he would rather be related to apes than a man who used his gifts to obscure the truth. Things went downhill from there. Darwin, however, had the good sense to be sick that week and stayed out of the fray, which set the tone for the evolution debate in the 19th century: Chuck would stay home and work on his books, while T.H. loudly antagonized creationists in his name. Others have since taken up that baton -- you know them as "most of Reddit."
We've all been there: You leave a quick comment on a picture of dogs wearing bowties, and next thing you know, you've been sucked into a days-long debate about economics. And at some point in that debate, someone probably mentioned the "invisible hand" -- the idea that even if corporations act like greedy dickholes, the market will always deal with them by itself, without Uncle Sam butting in. Predatory banks will eventually lose their clientele. Non-abusive contractors will get more work. Capitalism is just the best, you guys.
This notion was first described by 18th-century philosopher Adam Smith, who is considered the father of modern economics (and looked exactly like you just imagined, right down to the wig). Smith fanboys like Milton Friedman have used his ideas to explain why the government shouldn't regulate corporations, or tax the rich, or bother with commie bullshit like welfare -- just sit back, and let the invisible hand sort it all out!
W. Strahan and T. Cadell
What It Actually Means:
You know who was a big fan of taxing the rich to help the poor, though? Adam Smith:
That's Smith himself in the very same book where he explains his invisible hand idea, so it's not like he got softer with age or something. Smith knew that the free market had its limitations. He used an entire chapter of his most famous work, The Wealth Of Nations, to explain the areas where "just let them do whatever they want" is not an option -- public works, the legal system, education, and health care. Sure, he disagreed with practices like imposing tariffs, wage caps, or installing monopolies, but these are not exactly radical positions. Give a company a monopoly and before you know it, a bunch of drunks dressed like Indians are dumping the product in the Boston Harbor.
To sum up, Smith would have hated privatized health insurance, did not believe in trickle-down economics, and rejected the flat tax. The invisible hand can guide us, but when it comes to absolutely free markets, it's not giving out any happy endings.
Karl Marx is the poster boy for atheism.
The German thinker and granddaddy of communism provided a perfect slam-quote to explain why religious people were such mindless dolts: "Religion is the opiate of the masses." This short but eloquent thought has inspired countless edgy t-shirts and skeleton-filled posters. So, Marx obviously meant that he considered religious folks akin to mentally impaired, useless drug addicts laying on their own filth, right? There's no other explanation here.
What It Actually Means:
First of all, if the current state of widespread pharmaceutical drug addiction has shown us anything, it's that opiates are the opiates of the masses. But, crippling social issues aside, check out the context in which Marx said that:
Marx said some pretty nice things about religion and its role in society, before angsty college kids wanting to make their parents feel dumb at Thanksgiving started quote-cropping him. Marx called religion "the heart of a heartless world" and "the spirit of a spiritless situation," praising its ability to help people get through a tough life. He felt empathy for those who seek refuge in religion, not disdain. If he saw you blasting death metal at carolers, he'd call you a thoughtless dick.
Instead of abolishing religion in his red utopia, Marx talks about wanting to create a world so great that people don't feel they need it anymore. It's almost like he's speaking in a way that won't alienate the vast majority of the people likely to be reading his work. He doesn't even appear to use the word "sheeple!" Go figure.
Tim Lieder's fiction has appeared in Lamplight, Shock Totem, and Daughters of Frankenstein: Lesbian Mad Scientists (published by Lethe Press). His latest published stories are in Sugarplum Zombie Motherfuckers. He also owns Dybbuk Press, through which he's published nine titles including King David and the Spiders from Mars. Stephan Roget infrequently tweets over at @StephanRoget, where he's mostly just excited he didn't have to use an underscore. Check out his most recent articles here.
For other famous sayings you're totally botching, check out 6 Famous Literary Quotes Everyone Uses Exactly Wrong and 5 Classic Movie Quotes (Where We Totally Ignore The Context).
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