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The Top 10: Misattributed Quotations

‘If you read it on the internet it must be true’ – Mahatma Gandhi. And other things they never said

John Rentoul
Friday 25 August 2017 14:56 BST
Edmund Burke, who never said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’
Edmund Burke, who never said: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’

I did a Top 10 Misquotations long ago, but this is different: quotations that are commonly ascribed to someone who either never said them, or who was repeating someone else’s words. Suggested by Steve Van Riel‏ and No Ordinary Cat‏.

1. “Give me lucky generals.” Often attributed to Napoleon. No evidence he said it, but Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France, 1642-61, said the question to ask of a general is not, “Est-il habile?” Is he skilful? but “Est-il heureux?” Is he lucky?

2. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Albert Einstein. Actually first used in a Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet, 1981. Common online inspirational words nominated by Steve Van Riel.

3. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Attributed to Edmund Burke, including by John F Kennedy in a speech in 1961. Burke didn’t say it, and its earliest form was by John Stuart Mill, who said in 1867: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Thanks to Andrew Marshall.

4. “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.” Aneurin Bevan. From a television play about Bevan, Food for Ravens by Trevor Griffiths, who said: “I have no written source for it, but old Bevanites in the coalfields were saying something like it during the strikes of the Eighties and often quoting Nye as the source.” Ho hum.

5. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire. Except that it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrasing Voltaire’s argument. Nominated by No Ordinary Cat‏.

6.. “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” Reginald Dale wrote to Gideon Rachman: “Kissinger never made the famous remark about Europe’s telephone number. According to the late Peter Rodman, who knew him well, the saying is apocryphal, and in fact Kissinger’s concern was the precise opposite – he was fed up with having to deal with a Dane whom he regarded as incompetent and ineffective, who was trying to represent the whole of the EU as President of the Council. Kissinger himself has disowned the remark, and it seems that he was actually seeking to divide and rule in Europe, rather than be restricted to a single voice on the telephone.”

7. “Who’s a silly-billy then?” Denis Healey. It was coined by the impressionist Mike Yarwood, but Healey adopted it as his own. Thanks to Sean O’Grady.

8. “Et tu, Brute.” Julius Caesar, according to Shakespeare. The earliest account, by Suetonius, records his saying to Brutus: “And you child?” Nominated by Graham Kirby.

9. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Thomas Jefferson. The original, by John Philpot Curran in 1813 was: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Another from Andrew Marshall.

10. “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Another one often attributed to Napoleon. It was Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian field marshal who wrote in the mid-19th century: “[N]o plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

Next week: Actors who everyone thought would be terrible in a role but who turned out to be great, inspired by Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire, 1994

Coming soon: Songs not in 4/4 time, such as “Black Dog”, Led Zeppelin, and “I Say a Little Prayer”, Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick

Your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, in the comments please, or to me on Twitter, or by email to

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