Top 10 Misquotations

John Rentoul

thatch 300x168 Top 10 MisquotationsThe fabulous misquotation by The New York Times on the day of Lady Thatcher’s death, “Turn if you like; the lady’s not for turning,” suggests another subject for a Top 10. As I argued the other day, what Mrs Thatcher actually said

was one of the best-crafted word plays in modern English speech-writing, transforming the familiar phrase “U-turn” into a defiant statement, with its emphatic rhythm, and someone who knew nothing about it, who had plainly never heard the speech, had mangled it.

Of course, the NYT’s was an unusual example, quickly corrected.

Another misquotation was more persistent. Scores of commentary articles asserted that Lady Thatcher had once said that her greatest legacy was either Tony Blair or New Labour. As far as I know, she never said any such thing. The absence of quotation marks in any part of the claim was a giveaway. She once said something about hoping that British politics could become more like the American, where the Republicans and Democrats both accept the free market, and I think she expressed later some satisfaction that this had come about. She also did say shortly before the 1997 election: “Tony Blair won’t let Britain down.” But it is important to get these things right, and in the digital age there is less excuse for getting them wrong.

So, what’s your pet hate? Having its tail pulled. Yes, yes, very droll. I mean, what are your most irritating misquotations?

I have complained at some length about: “It’s the economy, stupid;” “Events, dear boy, events;” “A week is a long time in politics” (both of which are “attributed” rather than recorded quotations); and, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, although that is a selective quotation of Peter Mandelson rather than an actual misquotation.

And let me know if you have any more nominations for new Top 10s, soon to feature in the award-winning New Review colour supplement to The Independent on Sunday.

Tagged in: , , , , , ,
  • Owen Barder

    “Crisis? What crisis?” was a poor summary of what Jim Callaghan actually said (“I promise if you look at it from the outside, I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos”).

  • David Boothroyd

    Top one for me would be the persistent but deluded belief by London Conservatives that Herbert Morrison ever said something along the lines of “We are going to build the Conservatives out of London”. No such remark can be found among his works, and nor can it be found in any contemporary publication of the London Municipal Society which was the body through which Conservative campaigning in London was run at the time. The LMS’s publication ‘The Londoner’/'The Ratepayer’ made a specialty of highlighting embarrassing quotes from Labour politicians and would certainly not have missed this one.

    Next comes the misquotation of Denis Healey referring to taxation policy. He did not say “We are going to tax the rich until the pips squeak”. Probably derives from a concatenation of his remark about “howls of anguish” from people paying the top rate, and an election statement that he would squeeze property speculators until the pips squeak.

    A non-political one – there is no evidence that John Phelps, umpire of the 1877 Boat Race, said it was a “dead heat to Oxford” or “dead heat to Oxford by [distance]“. I can’t find any trace of this statement before the 1940s.

  • John Rentoul

    Thank you for those. All very good.

  • John Rentoul

    I had forgotten that “Chaos? What chaos?” would have been a more accurate misquotation. Thanks.

  • mightymark

    Is it true as I have heard, that any “U turn” signs along the funeral route were removed!?

  • mightymark

    “The pound in your pocket has not been devalued”?

  • therealguyfaux

    Gordon Brown on the banking crisis: “We save[d] the world…”

    Oh, hold on, he DID say something like that, he just stepped on his dick whilst doing it– he meant to say “Not only did we save the banks, but we also helped to save the world’s banking system,” which he DOES say, after the guffaws subside. Not sure you’d call this a misquote, as opposed to a selective edit of an infelicitous turn of phrase (and its poor delivery) before launching into his apologia.

    Kennedy’s quote, literally translated, was: “I am a jelly donut”

    Nice try, by the person who started this one, the identity of whom has been lost with time. It’s been often remarked that people in Berlin itself do not refer to the pastry as such, and that it was a play on words for people in other parts of Germany, perhaps– but JFK was a likable-enough sort of chap that people laughed WITH and not AT him on that one. (He’d have probably been better off, though, saying “Ich bin Berlinisch,” the sense being “I am of Berlin,” instead of “Ich bin Berliner” sans “ein,” the sense being “I am from Berlin,” to convey the thought that we were all in solidarity with the population of West Berlin.) This is more like an attempt to mock something that was said rather than a garbling of it, and I don’t know how you technically get “misquote” out of it, but there you are.

  • HJ777

    One of the most common misattributions to Margaret Thatcher is that she described Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”.

    She did no such thing – she described the ANC as such. Of course, because the ANC was on the ‘right’ side of the apartheid she is vilified for this, but she was,of course correct. It is not widely known that on the ANC’s insistence, the first country that Mandela was obliged to visit after his release was Gaddafi’s Libya – which tells you rather a lot about the ANC leaders of the time (they also insisted that he didn’t visit Margaret Thatcher). Mandela did visit her on a later visit and thanked her for her help in gaining his release.

Most viewed



Property search
Browse by area

Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter