Even More Famous Myth-Quotations

Twice before we’ve featured popular “myth-quotations,” quotes everyone knows that have never been said — at least, not in the language we’re used to hearing. Here are a few more to add to our ever growing list.

What we like to call “myth-quotations” are funny little occurrences. Most of the time, they’re items and epigrams that people ought to have said, but didn’t quite say in that manner. They achieved their common forms long after they were originally uttered. Sometimes they’re even pure propaganda, and nothing like them was ever stated at all.

Whatever the case, they’ve entered the public consciousness — and once there, they become hard to eradicate. Previously, we’ve presented ten such misquotations, from “Let them eat cake!” to “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Here are a few more examples we’ve all heard.

Myth 1: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

This myth-quotation is commonly attributed to General Philip Sheridan, of Civil War fame. What he apparently said, in response to an Indian chief’s assurance that he was a good Indian, was, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” That was still a pretty rotten thing to say…assuming he actually said it.

While Sheridan was no fan of Native Americans, having fought them for years out west after the Civil War, he denied ever having made the statement. A similar statement, made by Congressman James Cavanaugh in 1869, may have been mistakenly attributed to him.

Myth 2: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

This myth-quotation is one that we all take for granted as the basis of our legal system. When you think about, though, it doesn’t make much sense. Your guilt or innocence isn’t something you can flip like a switch because someone makes a decision. The true quote, of course, is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Myth 3: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well.”

In addition to being strip-mined to a fare-thee-well for titles for other literary works (Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a good example), William Shakespeare’s writings have probably yielded up more misquotes than any other literary canon in the English language. The “Alas, poor Yorick!” item is one of the best known.

The myth-quotation derives from Hamlet’s scene in the graveyard, as the prince lifts and regards the skull of the court jester Yorick, whom he knew as a child. The actual quote is, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

Myth 4: “The British are coming! The British are coming!”

We’ve all thrilled to the wonderful poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” in which the colonial silversmith and patriot is said to have ridden around the countryside warning of the approach of British troops. Though Longfellow never claimed Revere shouted “The British are coming!”, somehow we all assume he did.

But the real Paul Revere would never dare to shout this warning. Not only was he trying to avoid British patrols, but also most of the people in the region considered themselves, in essence, to be British as well! This particular myth-quotation belongs to the category of those never actually uttered.