5 Things Famous People Didn’t Actually Say

Ah! The meme. Ever since Mike Godwin’s op ed article on Wired, the word “meme” has enjoyed meteoric rise. In its most basic form, a meme is an idea or behavior that is spread by imitation from person to person. Most people don’t know or remember that this idea existed long before the first “I can has cheezburger?” cat every appeared on the internet.

How to Make a Meme 101:

  1. Find a picture of a famous person or breathtaking image.


You have yourself a meme. No one knows why some memes go viral while others die on the vine, but the really successful ones are usually those that marry the best sayings with the best pictures of the most famous people.


With the rise of the internet meme, specifically, misattribution has grown to epic proportions. Misattribution is giving credit to someone for something said that he or she likely did not say.

The trouble with attribution is the argument that the purported source is the first human being ever to utter those words in that sequence.

You can quote me on that.

Most attribution — and by extension misattribution — is very hard to prove. For example, people online argue regularly about whether George Washington actually said, “I cannot tell a lie”. Some say that Mason Locke Weems invented this statement in his biography about Washington. Ole George died in 1799. Weems produced his biography after Washington died. It’s entirely possible that Washington actually did say exactly that. We’ll never really know.

The same may be true of any number of statements attributed to now deceased famous people. Confidence increases when multiple reputable sources report first-hand knowledge that the attribution is correct. Even when the source is still alive, it’s often difficult to know if they were really the first. And, the rise of the internet meme has made it more difficult than ever to sort out attribution fact from fiction.

“Without further ado” (source unknown; circa 1380, but let’s go ahead and give credit to Charles V of France who died in 1380), a list of 5 things famous people probably didn’t say.

Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. — Not Vince Lombardi

According to Wikipedia (which Fox Business says has accuracy that’s declining like the rest of the internet), the UCLA Bruins coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders said it first in around 1950.

Since competitive sports have been around for about 3,000 years, I argue that Mr. Sanders is also not the first person to ever say that. We could just as easily attribute that statement to Leonidas of Rhodes, Bill Johnson, or Usain Bolt.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. — Not Albert Einstein

Michael Becker of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle gives credit to a fictional character from the 1983 mystery novel by Rita Mae Brown titled Sudden Death.

A quick internet search gives plenty of credit to Albert Einstein, Barack Obama, Max Nordau, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Rita Mae Brown, and a host of others.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. — Not Voltaire

Attribution for this quote goes to Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote a Voltaire biography. The statement from her book is a paraphrase of a sentiment she had that she felt Votaire might have said.

Not many people adhere to that way of thinking anymore.

Standing on the shoulders of giants. — Not Sir Isaac Newton

The mists of time are very cloudy between now and 1727 when Sir Isaac Newton died, but it appears he may have alluded to this statement in a letter to Robert Hooke giving credit to a Bernard of Chartres.

John of Salisbury wrote that Bernard of Chartres — a 12th century man — used to say, “we [the moderns] are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants [the Ancients] and thus we are able to see ore and farther than the latter.”

There’s a sucker born every minute. — Not P.T. Barnum

This one is actually attributed to Adam Forepaugh, a contemporary and competitor of P.T. Barnum. However, quote investigator makes reference to a very similar statement made before either Barnum or Forepaugh were born.

Here’s a bonus one just for sticking around.

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. — Not Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, or Ann Landers.

The phrase appears to be a paraphrase of something attributed to Jonathan Swift, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

Thanks for reading!

Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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