When a quote becomes famous: even if it was never quite said that way

Most of us will likely make use of a famous short quote (let's call it a quip) at some point. We do so because such a quote (lying outside the purview of copyright protection--right Kats?) has transcended its specific context and has become part of our broader verbal heritage. Presumably, use of such a quote, pregnant with widely- shared meaning, will improve the quality of our communication. Nevertheless, it is not infrequently the case that that the quote as used is not identical to what was originally said. The discrepancy between the original, versus popular, form of the expression, is seldom, if ever, due to malice, but rather reflects how utterances can be altered in the usual process of transmission and public adoption. Consider two notable examples, one regarding the well-known US author, Samuel Clemens, known by his pen name, Mark Twain, and the other regarding the iconic movie “Casablanca".

Twain’s famous utterance (in various forms) is -- “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”, “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” or “reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.” The admonition has come to express that some anticipated end may not be as certain as it appears. However, it appears that none of these variant forms is the precise utterance made by Twain.

In May 1897, Twain found himself in London, as part of a world-wide speaking tour intended to raise funds to help him cover substantial debts that he had accumulated due to several failed business ventures. A rumor began to circulate that Twain was seriously ill, and later came a report that he had passed away. As the story goes, an American newspaper reported that Twain had died. When this was brought to Twain’s attention in London, he was then reported to have quipped one of the variants above.

In fact, a reporter in London for the New York Journal had been asked by his editors in New York in late May 1897 to inquire about Twain’s health. Twain replied in writing,
“I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness.

The report of my death was an exaggeration (emphasis added).”
So here we have the precise form of the original quote. The source of the more familiar, albeit imprecise, form of the quote, seems to have come from a popular biography of Twain, written by Albert Bigelow Paine in 1912, two years after Twain’s death. In Paine’ version of Twain’s famous quip, Twain was approached in London by a young journalist, who was expected to write a 1000-word piece on Twain if had passed away (and only 500 words if he were still alive). In response to the journalist’s inquiry, Twain was reported to have remarked:
“You don’t need as much as that [1000 words]. Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”
The upshot seems to be that while most scholars use the version set out in Twain’s own handwriting (see image on the left), the more popular version(s) rely on a version based on Paine’s book. The quote itself, however imprecise, has become a staple of (at least American) English, benefiting from its witticism and its attribution to Twain.

While the story of how Twain’s famous quote has been memorialized in a slightly imprecise fashion, the tale of the famous line from the move, "Casablanca" (according to some, the greatest movie ever made), is a bit more puzzling. Most Kat readers will probably recognize the line, “Play it again, Sam.” The problem is that line was never actually uttered in the movie. As summarized on Wikipedia:
“When Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman) first enters the Café Americain, she spots Sam (played by Dooley Wilson) and asks him to "Play it once, Sam, for old times' sake." After he feigns ignorance, she responds, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By'." Later that night, alone with Sam, Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) says, "You played it for her, you can play it for me," and "If she can stand it, I can! Play it!"
Nowhere in this exchange was it ever said— “Play it again, Sam”.

Unlike Twain’s quote, there is nothing special in the contents of the utterance, “Play it (again) Sam”. Its enduring popularity seems to derive from the cinematic magic of the scene as epitomizing the relationship between Bergman and Bogart, not to say the beauty of the song, "As Time Goes By", which will never go by. As such, it might seem that this line would be ripe for use as a powerfully suggestive trademark. [Merpel has done a quick check of the USPTO and she found several applications or registrations, none of which however are still valid. Go figure.]

Having regard to these two examples, it is notable how their cultural durability is not a function of their historical accuracy. An utterance is made and recalled, and it is then refashioned as it takes on popular currency of use. Scholars may take care to use the precise form of Twain’s quip, or correct Bergman’s never quite said famous line, but for the rest of us, it is irrelevant. By now, the more popular forms of use have acquired separate cultural meaning. And one final Kat comment—if any Kat readers have any further examples, please do share them.

When a quote becomes famous: even if it was never quite said that way When a quote becomes famous: even if it was never quite said that way Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, January 29, 2017 Rating: 5


  1. On a sci-fi theme, Captain James T. Kirk never said "Beam me up, Scotty", and Darth Vader never said "Luke, I am your father."

  2. Apropos Ewan Kirk, many years ago, while I was walking through O'Hare airport in Chicago, I spotted a person whom I believed was James Doohan, the actor who played "Scotty" in the Star Trek series. I sheepishly approached him and said: "I have only one question." He replied, "Let me guess--beam me up Scotty."

  3. In Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', Macbeth has just learned that the prophecies of the witches are coming true. He says he will not fight Macduff, who taunts him. He then chooses to fight and die saying 'Lay on, Macduff; and damned be him that first cries 'Hold, enough'.' (Act 5 scene 8). He is always misquoted as 'Lead on, Macduff', as if they are going for a walk.

  4. The famous exchange between F Scott Fitzgerald ("The rich are different from us") and Hemingway ("Yes, they have more money") never actually happened. It derived from some comments in their writing, and over time took on a life of its own as a "real" conversation...

  5. My favorite is the meme of the supposed quote from Abraham Lincoln warning about taking things too literally on the internet...

  6. All my examiners ever: "The novelty and inventiveness arguments you have provided are greatly exaggerated."

  7. No offence guys, but you really need to start proof reading...

  8. "Elementary, my dear Watson!"


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