10 of History’s Most Misinterpreted Quotes

Some of these interpretations change the meaning entirely.
A lot of people misinterpret these famous quotes.
A lot of people misinterpret these famous quotes. / Schon/Moment/Getty Images (man in forest); Pakin Songmor/Moment/Getty Images (thought bubble)

It’s not uncommon for famous phrases to be slightly misquoted, but often these mistakes don’t really change the sense of the saying. There isn’t a huge difference, for instance, between “Houston, we have a problem” and the words that were actually said aboard Apollo 13: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

But there are some quotes that have been entirely misinterpreted, sometimes even being used to express the exact opposite of their intended meaning. Below are 10 popular quotes that have suffered such a fate.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Nowadays, telling someone that to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” means they should work hard to achieve success without help. Although often intended to be motivational, the words can sound insensitive to people who are trapped by circumstances beyond their control. That insensitivity is actually baked into the phrase itself (when used in this way!) because pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is physically impossible—which is exactly what this idiom originally meant.

The phrase can be traced back to 1834, when Nimrod Murphree claimed to have invented perpetual motion. A writer for The Woodstock Mercury, and Windsor County Advertiser called out this blatant lie, sarcastically commenting, “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots.”

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

black and white photo of Robert Frost
The poet Robert Frost. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

The last lines of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1915) are often understood as a celebration of striking out on your own, rather than simply following in the footsteps of others. But the rest of the poem muddies this interpretation, with both roads being described as essentially the same. It didn’t really matter which path the person in the poem chose, but they tell themselves the decision held weight. “The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” writes David Orr, Professor of Poetry at Rutgers University, “it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.”

“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

This seemingly rebellious phrase can often be found printed on posters alongside pictures of famous women disrupters, such as Rosa Parks. Although sometimes misattributed to Marilyn Monroe, the words actually come from a 1976 journal article about Puritan women written by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich [PDF].

Out of context, the quote certainly seems to be an encouragement for women to misbehave, but in Ulrich’s article, the rest of the sentence reads, “against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.” Essentially, Ulrich is saying that well-behaved women are often forgotten by history, but that their stories deserve to be told, too.

“Hell is other people.”

Jean-Paul Sartre
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

This quotation from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 hell-set play No Exit may seem like a rallying call for misanthropes, but it wasn’t intended to be as stark as it sounds. In 1964, Sartre commented on the misunderstanding, saying that he didn’t mean that “relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations.” The play is about other people’s judgments of us impacting our sense of self, but that’s only hellish, in Sartre’s words, “if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated.”

“One bad apple.”

The phrase one bad apple is often used to describe a single outlying bad person in a group, but this is a shortened—and consequently distorted—version of the saying. The full phrase is one bad apple spoils the barrel/bunch, meaning that the one bad person infects those around them in the same way as a piece of spoiled fruit causes nearby fruits to begin rotting.

A version of this proverb crops up as early as the 14th century. In “The Cook’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, apprentice chef Perkyn is fired because it’s feared his debauched behavior will spread to the other workers: “Wel bet is roten appul out of hoord / Than that it rotie al the remenaunt” (“Well better is a rotten apple out of the store / Than that it rot all the remnant”).

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

portrait of William Shakespeare
The playwright William Shakespeare. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Many modern ears have heard the word wherefore at the start of Juliet’s famous speech in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and assumed that it’s the early modern English version of where. But wherefore actually means “why.” Juliet isn’t wondering where her beloved is, but why he has to be called Romeo as it’s their names that are keeping them apart. This is clarified by her very next line: “Deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Another commonly misinterpreted quote from Shakespeare comes from Richard III. The play opens with Richard, who isn’t yet king, declaring, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” This line is often used to describe trying times, but the full sentence is about the end of political turbulence: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York.” The use of winter here signifies an ending (in addition to evoking bleak weather), meaning that Richard’s brother, now King Edward IV, has ended their family’s discontentment by gaining the English throne (thus bringing about sunnier/happier days).

“Money is the root of all evil.”

photo of a hand fanning out u.s. dollars
Money itself is not evil. / George Marks/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This quotation from the Bible is often used to argue that money is inherently evil, but three important words have been axed from the start of the phrase, which in full is the love of money is the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10). It’s not money itself that’s the problem, but rather the desire for that sweet, sweet moolah that can lead to evil behavior.

“A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

This proverb—which provided The Rolling Stones band and Rolling Stone magazine with their names, as well as inspiring one of Bob Dylan’s best-known songs—is commonly believed to be an ode to rootless and free-spirited lifestyles. But for hundreds of years it had the exact opposite meaning, with the moss signifying stability and success.

The phrase was popularized during the Renaissance by Erasmus’s Adagia, which includes the proverb, Lapis obuolutus non obducitur musco (“The rowling ston neuer gathereth Mosse”). Erasmus doesn’t provide an explanation, but John Ray’s 18th-century collection of proverbs likens the stony saying to a phrase from Quintilian, a 1st-century Roman educator: “A plant often removed cannot thrive.”

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Rudyard Kipling
The writer Rudyard Kipling. / Edward Gooch Collection/GettyImages

The opening line from Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 poem “The Ballad of East and West” is sometimes used to describe two cultures or ideologies being incompatible and has been held up as proof of Kipling’s racism. The writer’s personal views on race aside, the rest of the verse actually argues the opposite, declaring that people from different cultures can happily meet on equal terms: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

Read About More Famous Quotes Here: