Have you ever been on the receiving end of that well-worn and slightly condescending phrase, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’?
If so, you’ll know how the person using it will assume a superior air, before explaining something you already knew – and which doesn’t quite solve your problem.
Next time it happens, fight condescension with pedantry and point out that the fictional Victorian sleuth never uttered the phrase at all.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, Sherlock Holmes says both ‘…my dear Watson’ and ‘Elementary’, but he never utters the two phrases together.
In fact, the first use of the phrase seems to come from the 1909-10 serialisation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist.
Another misquote that has worked its way into the popular consciousness is ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ – a phrase supposedly originating from Mohandas Gandhi.
On first hearing, it sounds like something Gandhi might have said, but there’s actually no reliable documentary evidence to back it up.
According to the New York Times, the closest quote we have is this:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”
Compare the two and it’s easy to see why the simpler phrase is more common.
But besides their popularity, both of these misquotations have one thing in common – they’re believable. They could plausibly have been said by the people they’re attributed to.
Shorter, pithier, faster, stronger
The things that make these misquotes popular and ease them into the popular consciousness are things that make for good copywriting.
As copywriters, we listen to our clients so we can distill their thoughts, ideas and services into meaningful (and easy-to-understand) language that makes a lasting impact.
So if it gets the message across, long live the misquote.
Have you come across any other famous quotes of questionable origin? Let us know in the comments…