10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed

Larry Holzwarth - April 25, 2018

Some misquotes have become part of the American lexicon, known to be inaccurate but frequently repeated anyway. One example of this is Humphrey Bogart’s line as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, “…play it again Sam.” Bogie never said that line in the film, nor did his costar Ingrid Bergman, though their characters both asked Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, to play As Time Goes By. The line even became the title of a play and film spoofing Bogart and Casablanca, directed by Woody Allen. It is probably one of the most misquoted statements attributed to Bogart, indelibly linked to him, despite his never having said the words.

In history there are many such examples that are similar, some are misattributions, some fabrications, and some shared by more than one figure. Some are simply urban legends, their origin unknown. Vince Lombardi claimed repeatedly that he never said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” but that has never stopped him from being misquoted by amateur football coaches and less than thorough reporters. He did often quote another head coach, Red Sanders, as having said, “Winning isn’t a sometimes thing; it’s an all the time thing.” The first line remains part of Lombardi’s legend though, and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Bogie never said “Play it again Sam”, a quote misattributed to him in a film filled with memorable lines. Wikimedia

Here are ten misattributed quotes from historic figures which have gained credibility over time, despite being provably false.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Though he was apprehensive about war with the United States, Yamamoto never said one line famously attributed to him. Wikimedia

Isoroku Yamamoto in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor

In motion picture Tora! Tora! Tora! Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, remarks of the success of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The line was repeated in another, later motion picture, Pearl Harbor, in 2001. It has been repeated in magazine articles and websites and is often quoted as evidence that Yamamoto was opposed to opening war with the United States, having seen first-hand its immense industrial capacity. The problem is that there is no documented evidence of Yamamoto ever uttering the statement or writing it down.

It is true that Yamamoto entered the planning phase for the Pacific War reluctantly, convinced that Japan could hope for no better than a negotiated peace with the United States after administering swift and deadly blows on its unprepared enemy. It was a gamble undertaken in the hope that a series of defeats in the Pacific, where Japan intended to build its empire in order to obtain raw materials while reducing dependence on the west, would preclude a protracted war. Yamamoto had toured the United States and knew well of its mineral wealth and industrial capability.

He also knew that the American fleet as represented by the battle line at Pearl Harbor was inferior to the Japanese in terms of modernity and that the United States was unready for carrier warfare, still operating under the theory that the war would be decided by the battleships and their big rifles. Yamamoto led the Japanese attack believing that the United States government would receive notice of a state of war just prior to the Japanese planes appearing over Pearl Harbor. The inept performance of the Japanese decoders in Washington ensured that his attack was unannounced and unprovoked.

Numerous diaries and logs kept by the Japanese note Yamamoto’s evident depression following the attack, all the more obvious when compared to the celebrations held by more junior officers. When the fleet returned to Japan Yamamoto noted in a letter that there was no pride to be had for having “smitten a sleeping enemy”, but he made no comments as to what he expected that enemy to do, other than react in “a determined counterattack.” Yamamoto commented that in striking a sleeping enemy the attacker should feel shame, rather than the unaware victim of the attack, hence the likely cause of his depression.

Both the producer of Tora! Tora! Tora! and its screenwriter claimed to have seen the quote in writing, the former in a diary and the latter in a letter, but neither ever produced the documents, and neither Japanese nor American historians and researchers have ever found them. Nor has any historian found any other reference to the quote. Pearl Harbor‘s director stated that he referenced the earlier film as his source. Finally, the quote is out of sync with Yamamoto’s character as a naval officer and Japanese warrior. There is no reference to it earlier than the 1970 release of Tora! Tora! Tora! and as such its attribution to Yamamoto is most likely false.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Winston Churchill as he appeared around the time of the alleged Royal Navy Traditions quote. Imperial War Museum

Winston Churchill on Royal Navy Traditions

According to several published histories of the Royal Navy, and of Winston Churchill, the former First Lord of the Admiralty once said, “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy, and the lash”. Churchill liked the quote, though he never cited it in his work, and when asked about it he remarked to his private secretary, Anthony Montague-Browne, that he wished he had said it, but that he had not. A second version of the quote included prayers as one of the traditions of the Royal Navy. Both versions of the quote emerged at a time when the First Lord was attempting to modernize the British Fleet by converting it to burn fuel oil rather than coal, and concentrate on smaller ships.

To the more hidebound senior British Admirals this activity by the First Lord, particularly the reliance on smaller ships rather than great lines of battle filled with battleships and battlecruisers, was a threat to the Navy in which they had built their careers. The British Navy of the time, early in the twentieth century, had two main missions; control of the Mediterranean and its links to India, and control of the North Sea. The main threat in the former was the Italian and Austro-Hungarian fleets, in the latter, it was the Imperial High Seas Fleet of the German Empire.

When one of these Admirals complained in a somewhat heated meeting with Churchill of the need to maintain the traditions of the Navy Churchill, according to the Admiral, responded with the above quote, belittling both the Navy’s storied past and endangering its future, or so he told fellow officers and reporters. The quote itself is a derivative from an old British Navy chanty which referred to what can be expected ashore and at sea. One line of the chanty went, “Ashore its wine, women, and song; aboard its rum, bum, and bacca (bacca referring to tobacco).

The first recorded reference to the quote is found in the diary of Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat, author, and politician who worked for a time in Churchill’s government during the Second World War before he was asked to resign his position by the Prime Minister. Nicolson was an anti-Semite, a married man who confessed to his wife that he feared he would infect her with a venereal disease he had contracted from a same-sex encounter with a colleague (he didn’t) and who once wrote a column during the Italian campaign in which he declared human life expendable, but works of art irreplaceable.

The quote was, like many others, widely spread by political enemies and supporters of those opposed to change in the 1910s, when it was allegedly uttered, and again in the 1940s, when Churchill was the Prime Minister. Churchill, who had written of the history of the Royal Navy and would again after the war, expressed some admiration for the line, probably due to its pithiness, but clearly stated that it was not a sentiment which he expressed. Nonetheless, many books of quotations attribute the quote to Churchill without making note of his comments denying that it was original to him.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Sigmund Freud was so fond of cigars that he grew to distrust those of his colleagues who didn’t smoke them. Library of Congress

Sigmund Freud on the meaning of a cigar

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, meaning that not everything signifies something other than what it plainly is, without secondary – or what is now often called Freudian – meaning. While some say Freud was the source of this observation several years before his death there is nothing in his voluminous writings which comes remotely close to the sentiments of the statement. There is evidence that the first reference in writing to the quote, which appeared in 1950 and claimed the quote had been “famous” for thirty years, is simply fabrication.

The reference to the cigar (and cigarettes) as phallic symbols is the first link in the chain attaching the quote to Freud. Freud’s ideas and writings regarding sexual symbols and their effects on human behavior were highly controversial when they were first announced, and in many cases members of both sexes found the public discussions of his views to be titillating. A 1922 article in the “International Journal of Psycho-Analysis” discussed in detail the relationship between smoking and display of masculinity through the phallus represented by cigarettes or cigars. It did not mention Freud.

Freud himself was an inveterate consumer of cigars, to the point that he grew to dislike those who did not join him in the habit, and most of his close associates took up smoking. Freud saw no need to defend the practice, which at the time was widely practiced and even encouraged. Social manners had their rules regarding smoking and it was rare indeed to find a place where it was prohibited either in public or in private, although there were some restrictions regarding the consumption of tobacco in the presence of ladies.

Nothing in Freud’s writings, in either English or German, indicates a similar thought or observation regarding either the practice of smoking or the symbolism of the instrument being smoked. There were attributions of the observation to him beginning with the above cited 1950 article, but none before, and in the many years since the quote has been repeated scores of times, with its source being named as Sigmund Freud. None of Freud’s contemporaries refer to the statement, strangely as they were nearly all cigar smokers.

The symbolism of the cigar due to its shape and the often misunderstood sexual drives described by Freud seem to be the source of this quote, rather than the words of Sigmund Freud himself. The quote is probably at least a partial source for the famous quotation attributed to Groucho Marx – itself an urban legend without a shred of truth – that he told a mother with several children that he liked his cigar but he took it out once in a while.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
The true source of the “Let them eat cake” quote was likely Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wikimedia

Marie Antoinette and feeding the peasants cake

According to one of the myths of history, when Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was informed that the starving citizens of Paris had no bread with which to feed themselves and their families, she shrugged it off by declaring, “Let them eat cake”. It has been repeated through history as a sign of the complete disregard held by the French King and Queen as they reveled in the luxury of their palaces and estates, eating and drinking to the point of gluttony at times, while the people starved. The indifference of the Queen is cited as one of the justifications for the revolution and for the subsequent execution of the nobles who incited the hatred of the bourgeoises.

The problem with the story is that Marie Antoinette never made the statement. It was not one of the accusations thrown at her during her trial. There was a similar statement made in a European House of Royalty, and it was duly recorded by a diarist at the time, though it wasn’t published for another 16 years. The diarist was Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the document in which he recorded the statement was published in 1783. But its manuscript was written in 1767, when Marie Antoinette was but 13 years of age, living in Austria, and not to meet her future husband for another three years.

Rousseau published the content of his diaries and other writings as his Confessions, in the form of an autobiography with the first six volumes being completed by 1767, though not published until the 1780s. In one of those volumes, he referred to “une grande princesse” (a great princess) being advised of the peasants starving on account of insufficient bread responding by telling her advisers, “S’il n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” (If they have no bread, let them eat cake). One reason for the lack of bread was the shortage of yeast, brioche – cake – rises through the use of eggs rather than yeast. In other words, cake was available while bread was not.

Regardless, the reference to a great princess was not to Marie Antoinette, but to Maria Theresa of Spain. Whether the utterance as recorded by Rousseau was made out of callousness, stupidity, or a genuine recommendation to consider an alternative, it was not made by Marie Antoinette, who was not yet a great princess and was years from becoming the Queen of France. In addition, Rousseau’s Confessions is far from being a factual transcription of the life of Rousseau and his experiences in Europe to that time. Rousseau was not present to hear Maria Theresa make the remark, and was instead reporting an event of which he had heard secondhand, it had occurred a century earlier.

Marie Antoinette was initially popular with the French people, particularly in Paris, but as the country began to be roiled with revolutionary turmoil her popularity waned quickly. One of the main reasons for this was her Austrian birth and her membership in the Austrian Imperial Family, seen as a threat to the emerging French Republic. It was this rather than her perceived callousness which led to her arrest and execution, though stories such as the one connected with the “Let them eat bread” quote were useful in vilifying her in the eyes of the people and made her execution easier to justify to the French peasantry.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Banks may have been where the money was but that’s not why Willie Sutton robbed them. FBI

Willie Sutton on why he robbed banks.

According to longstanding belief, famed bank robber Willie Sutton was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks and the thief responded, “That’s where the money is”. This statement which is obvious, led to the development of Sutton’s Law, used in medical diagnosis to direct students when considering a diagnosis that one should use the obvious before looking at less readily available signs. There is a similar theory in concept used in accounting known as the Willie Sutton rule. The idea that a notorious bank robber’s quote was influential in both medicine and accounting would be intriguing except for the fact that Sutton never made the remark.

Sutton was a bank robber for four decades, stealing over $2 million using the techniques of armed robbery and breaking and entering to clean out vaults across the country. Although Sutton did carry weapons, often including a Thompson submachine gun, he never used them other than to threaten, never shot or killed anyone, and developed a reputation of being informed on legal issues. Just as he broke into banks he also broke out of prisons and jails. Once when asked if the guns he carried were loaded he replied that they weren’t, explaining that if they were someone might get hurt.

On March 14, 1950, the FBI created the Most Wanted Fugitives list, with Sutton, who was at the time an escapee from the Philadelphia County Prison, placed eleventh. In 1952 Sutton was locked up for what would be the final time in Attica State Prison, he remained there until the remainder of his sentence was commuted for good behavior. After his release, he capitalized on his notoriety by making commercials, consulting with banks on security issues, and lecturing on the issues of sentencing and prison reform. He also wrote his autobiography, which he entitled, Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber.

Despite the similarity in the title, Sutton used the memoirs to deny he had ever made the statement, “That’s where the money is.” According to Sutton, a reporter named Mitch Ohnstad asked him why he robbed banks and evidently displeased with the answer created the quote long attributed to the bank robber. Wrote Sutton, “The credit belongs to some enterprising reporter who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy…I can’t even remember where I first read it…” Sutton claimed that credit for the so-called Sutton’s Law belongs to the long-forgotten reporter rather than to him.

In his autobiography, Sutton provided a much lengthier explanation of why he robbed banks than the previously reported five-word reply. “Because I enjoyed it,” he wrote. “I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it…” Perhaps that is not an easily remembered or as blatantly obvious quote as the earlier one so long misattributed to him. It is a fuller explanation of why Sutton continued the practice for so long, at so much risk, and with so much loss to his personal freedom.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Napoleon’s Grand Army, freezing and hungry, struggling on its retreat from Moscow. Wikimedia

Napoleon on what fuels armies

Napoleon Bonaparte is usually attributed with saying, “An Army marches on its stomach,” although there is no evidence that he ever made that remark. Frederick the Great and Alexander the Great have also been identified as having first made the observation, which of course refers to the need to ensure that troops in the field have adequate provisions for their sustenance. Napoleon did not ensure that the troops which he led bore with them adequate provisions, relying instead on the fat of the land over which they marched to provide them with food. In this, he was not much different from other nineteenth-century commanders.

The closest Napoleon came to addressing the necessities of feeding the troops under his command and those of his Marshals was, “The basic principle which we must follow in directing the Armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.” This demonstrates that the burden of feeding the troops was as much on the troops themselves as it was on the commissary of the French Armies. It also demanded that the armies remain mobile, since staying in one place for an extended time would quickly exhaust local resources. This policy did much to defeat the French in Russia, the scorched earth policy of the withdrawing Russians denied resources to the advancing French, and ensured their starvation during their winter retreat in 1812-13.

The French Army nonetheless made several contributions to the preservation of some foods for use on the march, including the preservation of food through the technique of canning, though the cans were actually sealed glass jars similar to today’s Mason jars, rendering their extensive use problematic. The technique wasn’t perfected until the latter days of Napoleon’s empire, but he and several of his officers enjoyed canned foods on the march towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His troops however were still largely fed by their meager rations of bread and salted meat, supplemented by whatever they could forage from their surroundings.

Almost as large a concern as feeding the troops was the feeding of the army’s horses, including the several different mounts per man of the cavalry and the draft animals which hauled the armies’ supply wagons and artillery, engineering equipment, tents, water buckets, additional arms, trenching tools, and all of the detritus of a nineteenth-century military machine. The animals simply could not carry enough fodder to feed themselves, and military tactics and routes of invasion were controlled in part by the availability of food for the animals.

Napoleon was aware of the need to ensure troops in the field were adequately fed and sheltered, and he took steps throughout his career to ensure that these basic needs were met. But the French army stomached little better victuals than the opposing armies which they faced, and in some cases, such as the abandoned troops in Egypt and the ghastly retreat from Moscow, they fared far worse. The process of surviving off of the conquered lands of the enemy also contributed greatly to anti-French sentiment across the continent, though the troops of Prussia, for example, could be just as ruthless when seizing the crops and livestock of their countrymen.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
General John J. Pershing salutes the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1917. Library of Congress

General John J. Pershing and Lafayette

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 the American Expeditionary Force was sent to France under the command of General John J. Pershing, one of the most experienced and respected officers to ever lead an American force. Pershing quickly learned that the post carried as many political responsibilities as it did military. One of these was the desire by the French commanders to insert the American regiments into the line piecemeal, plugging gaps and reinforcing areas of the trenches where the French and British troops were all but exhausted. To the French, the plan made sense since the Americans were to be equipped with French artillery, tanks, and other equipment.

To Pershing the plan was unacceptable, and the Americans were to remain a cohesive command under his control, operating alongside the French and British Allies, but under independent American command. Pershing made several trips to Paris to discuss the situation with the Allied high command. During one of these trips, in July 1917, he was apprised of the growing concern of the French citizenry that the American units, still arriving in France in a trickle compared to what would soon come, were not up to the task. Pershing took the opportunity to visit the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, and during brief remarks uttered the line, “Lafayette, we are here.” Except that he did not.

Lafayette was a hero of the American and French Revolutions, though controversial in both. In the American Revolution, he served with honor and distinction, earning the gratitude of the American people who honored him in many ways. It cost him significant amounts of his own money and lands. During the French Revolution, he went from being a hero to an exile to a hero again, though the remainder of his estates and most of his wealth was gone by the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon offered him positions in his government, but Lafayette despised the Emperor and declined. So it was fitting that Pershing remind the French people of the sacrifices made by the Marquis and that the Americans were there to repay the longstanding debt.

But Pershing didn’t utter the line, though he did deliver some remarks to the crowd gathered to watch the American 16th Regiment march by the Tomb and deliver a salute. Before he did so he paid his respects at the tomb, accompanied by some of his staff. One of these was the disbursing officer for the American Expeditionary Force, Lt. Colonel Charles E. Stanton, who was given the opportunity to make brief remarks before Pershing spoke. In his remarks he said, “…with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic…Lafayette, we are here.”

Reporters quickly attributed the line to Pershing and despite his correcting them and requesting that they attribute the line to his aide, headlines in France and the United States published the quote as coming from Pershing. It became one of the most well-known lines of the war and has ever since been attributed to Pershing. Stanton retired from the Army in 1921, having achieved the rank of Colonel during the war. Pershing remained in the Army for a time following the war, and created the Pershing Map, a plan of interconnecting highways across the United States which was used as a guideline when designing the Interstate Highway System half a century later.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
The Battle of Flamborough Head gave the US Navy its prevailing battle cry, but it was not from the American commander John Paul Jones. US Navy

John Paul Jones on fighting on

There are several stirring quotes in the annals of the United States Navy, reflecting the inspired and intrepid leadership of its commanders in its earliest days. “We have met the enemy and he is ours…” is an example. “Don’t give up the ship,” is another, uttered by the dying James Lawrence as his command, USS Chesapeake, was being overrun by the crew of HMS Shannon. The British were so impressed by Lawrence’s courage and gallantry that he was given a full military funeral with honors after his death, and the British returned Chesapeake’s commission pennant, an unheard of gesture.

But the quote most often cited and remembered came from John Paul Jones. Its provenance is questionable in that there are two versions, the first; “I have just begun to fight,” and the second, “I have not yet begun to fight.” It is generally agreed that Jones responded first with the reply, “No sir” followed by the storied line, in response to a demand from the British captain of HMS Serapis whether the BonHomme Richard had struck its colors, signifying surrender. Where the quote originated is difficult to determine, but it did not originate that night off Flamborough Head on the deck of BonHomme Richard.

Several survivors of the action reported an exchange of words between the contending Captains, including the two Captains themselves, Jones and British commander Pearson. Their written records of the battle are detailed and vivid and none report the words which have come down through history as Jones’ immortal cry of defiance. Pearson reported hearing the cries of “quarter” coming from BonHomme Richard, with its colors shot away, and called out to ask if the American was asking for quarter. He reported receiving no response and ordered his crew to board the American.

Jones wrote that he responded that he was “determined to make you strike”, meaning surrender. Other witnesses reported other replies, but none were close to what history made famous. Shortly after the battle newspaper accounts appeared in Britain, where many had watched the fight from the shore, and later in France and the United States, each with differing accounts, and none containing Jones’ cry. After the Revolutionary War was over and Jones was seeking employment in the navies of Europe, he wrote of the battle but did not claim to have shouted the famous line.

Not until 1825, when the United States Navy was resting on the laurels earned against the Barbary pirates and the British Navy, did, “I have not yet begun to fight” appear in print, in an article written by Richard Dale. Dale had been the Richard’s first lieutenant during the battle and had earlier written differing responses that night by Jones to Captain Pearson’s query. So it is likely that the US Navy’s most famous battle cry originated with Dale, nearly fifty years after Jones’s victory over HMS Serapis. Jones almost certainly never said it, but nothing he ever said better reflected his spirit.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
The phrase “warts and all’ came not from Abraham Lincoln but possibly Oliver Cromwell. Wikimedia

George H. W. Bush on Abraham Lincoln

In 1988 George H. W. Bush, while running for President, quoted Abraham Lincoln saying “Here I stand, warts and all.” It was an admission of human imperfection in which the imperfections were lessened by linking them to the man often considered to be America’s greatest President. Thus it was a good political utterance, particularly in the context of an election campaign. Bush was not the first nor the last to misattribute a quote to Abraham Lincoln, nor even to do so with that particular quote. But it was and is bogus, Lincoln never said those words, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century his own personal secretary, John Hay, denied that the President had uttered them.

The quote itself is a portmanteau of sorts, combining quotes from two very different individuals from times long past even when Lincoln was alive. Warts and all came from a phrase long in English usage which originated with Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell commissioned an artist to paint his portrait, admonishing him to paint, “…my picture truly like me, and flatter me not at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me…” In English common usage this was reduced to “Paint me as you see me – warts and all.” Warts and all came to be a phrase used to describe candor.

The first part of Bush’s misquoting of Lincoln came from another source, Martin Luther. In 1521 Luther was called to appear before the Diet of Worms and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to answer charges over his teachings and to defend himself against accusations of heresy. Charles V meant to extract a complete recanting from Luther regarding his teachings and writings which had done so much to alter the view of the Church in the eyes of many, especially Germans. Luther delivered a reasoned and complete defense of his views rather than recant, at the end of which he said, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

Thus the inaccurate attribution from Bush was actually a compilation of quotes from historical figures, but Bush did not do the compilation himself. Several others on the campaign trail had used the misattribution before him, and he undoubtedly obtained the quote from review of one of those predecessors. An interesting aside to the issue is that there is significant doubt that either Cromwell or Luther ever used the words themselves. Cromwell’s story came from a fawning biographer and Luther’s remarks before the Diet of Worms were not recorded on paper until much later.

Inaccurate attribution of quotes to Abraham Lincoln is common among politicians of both of America’s political parties and has been since the President was killed in 1865. Lincoln’s name has been used to give added philosophical weight to phrases which he would have been in complete disagreement with, based on his political and legal careers. Politicians especially like to quote Lincoln as saying, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”, forgetting or perhaps ignoring the fact that Abraham Lincoln never said that either.

10 of the Most Famous Quotes Never Said or Misattributed
Queen Victoria claimed she never said “We are not amused”, according to her granddaughter Princess Alice. Wikimedia

Queen Victoria on amusement

Possibly the most famous remark ever allegedly uttered by a British monarch was attributed to Her Majesty Queen Victoria when she primly stated, “We are not amused.” The problem is there are so many examples attesting to when she said it, where she said it, and under what circumstances she said it, all of them conflicting, that the likelihood she ever said it at all is remote. Of course, it is possible that there were many different instances in which Her Majesty found little for amusement and she said so, but she denied ever having made the famous comment.

One of the more famous circumstances cited as being the occasion for the remark was following her attending a performance of HMS Pinafore. If that were true it would qualify as one of the shortest and most devastating theatrical reviews of all time. Another version linked to the theatre has Her Majesty made the remark following the performance of a production by her groom-in-waiting, Alexander Grantham Yorke. In another version, the Queen hears a guest laughing loudly but having not heard the witticism that triggered it asked that it be repeated, with her comment following.

The editor and novelist James Payn included the quote in his novel The Talk of the Town in 1885, its first known appearance in print. He did not attribute the quote directly to Queen Victoria. In 1887 the quote was for the first time directly attributed to the Queen in the book Royal Girls and Royal Courts, written by Mary Sherwood. She describes her source for the quote as Sir Arthur Helps. Newspaper stories reported the quote beginning around 1887, following its publication in the fictional The Talk of the Town, so their sources seem dubious at best.

In recent years some scholars have suggested that the true source of the quote was actually Queen Elizabeth I. There has been speculation that the remark was addressed to Essex in response to a remark made about Sir Walter Raleigh, but nothing in the way of proof has been produced. As with the case of the novel by James Payn, the remark in the case of Elizabeth is traced to a fictional source, rather than historical documentation.

In the case of Queen Victoria, there is clear denial that she ever made the remark, though the source for the denial is hearsay. In 1977 the BBC ran a documentary entitled Royal Heritage: Victoria, Queen and Empress. For this program, they interviewed Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, in 1976. Princess Alice was Victoria’s granddaughter, and in the interview, she recounted that she had asked Victoria directly about the quote to be told by her grandmother that she had never said, “We are not amused.” The clip can be seen online. So while there were undoubtedly many times during her long reign that her Majesty Queen Victoria was not amused, she apparently did not so express herself.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“A Terrible Resolve”, by Lawrence H. Suid, Proceedings, December 1964

“What Are Those Traditions? Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash”, by James Fallows, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011

“More than a cigar”, by Evan J. Elkin, Cigar Aficionado, Winter, 1994-95

“Marie Antoinette: The Journey”, by Antonia Frasier, 2002

“Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber”, by W. Sutton and E. Linn, 1976

“Life of Napoleon Bonaparte”, by John Abbott, 2005

“They Never Said It”, by John H. George and Paul Boller, 1989

“John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography”, by Samuel Eliot Morrison, 1959

“Honest Mr. President, Abe Never Said It”, by John J. Pitney Jr, NPR, March 25, 2010

“35 Times the Queen was not Amused”, by Sally Holmes, Elle Magazine, April 21, 2010

“Don’t Give Up the Ship”, by Roy and Lesley Adkins, History Net.

“ON LANGUAGE; Here I Sit, No Warts at All”, by William Safire, NY Times Magazine, March 6, 1988

“Did Queen Victoria really say “We are not amused?”, by Huw Fullerton, Radio Times.