13 Misused Book Quotes & What They Actually Mean When Read In Context
Whether it's printed on an inspirational sweatshirt or posted in an Instagram caption, no one can resist a good book quote. The only problem is, some of the most popular ones are also the most commonly misused literary quotes that have totally different meanings in-context. While it's true writers like William Shakespeare and Margaret Mitchell had a knack for writing incredibly memorable one-liners, it's also true that they used them completely differently than the artists on Etsy are using them now.
No matter how much you like to read or write, it isn't always easy expressing yourself or your thoughts to others. Finding the right words to demonstrate how you feel or what you believe can seem like an impossible task, one better left to the professionals. That is why so many people gravitate towards literary quotes to say what they are often unable to. Whether it's in an inscription on a Valentine's Day card, the introduction to a motivational speech, or even the bio of a Twitter page, the use of famous lines from books and poems is very common.
It's also (usually) very wrong.
From famous poems to beloved epitaphs and beyond, here are 13 commonly misused book quotes, along with an explanation of what they actually mean in context.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."
Perhaps the most popular line of American poetry, this famous quote from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" has become a beloved idea among people who like to break the mold and forge their own paths. Many people who quote it take it to mean that going your own way, though scary, leads to an even greater reward than following the herd. In reality, though, Frost wrote it for his friend, Edward Thomas, who he believed spent to much time "crying over what might have been." The poem was intended to express the idea that, no matter what path you choose, it doesn't really matter. Life happens, and the decisions you make have little to do with its ultimate destination.
"After all, tomorrow is another day."
Readers can thank Scarlett O'Hara (or rather author Margaret Mitchell) for a lot of amazing quotes, including this often repeated line from Gone with the Wind. When used out of context, it seems to express the idea of a fresh start or a new beginning. When Scarlett says her final line of the book, however, she is thinking of anything but. "I'll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara," she says. "I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After All, tomorrow is another day." The next day may be new, but to Scarlett, it is just like the one before, just another opportunity for her to try and win her love back.
"Now is the winter of our discontent."
As someone who just lived through the never-ending winter that was the beginning of 2018, I myself am guilty of misusing this line from William Shakespeare's drama, Richard III. While it is most often said in reference to the worst of times and the downtrodden, the full quotation from the play is actually describing the times changing for the better. "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York," it reads" And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried." It's a bit different in context, and by that, I mean the complete opposite.
"But who can watch the watchmen?"
People love to use this quote from "Satire VI", the most famous work of Roman poet Juvenal, when questioning authority or second guessing the government. Although its become a rallying cry for those who mistrust the people in power, the line's original intent was actually incredibly sexist and misogynistic. In the context of the poem, Juvenal was not arguing against government surveillance, but rather against marriage, because he believed all women to be liars and cheaters. "I know the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt: 'Bolt her in, constrain her!' But who can watch the watchmen," the translation of the poem roughly reads. "They keep quiet about the girl's secrets and get her as their payment; everyone hushes it up." In other words, Juvenal was claiming that women are incapable of being chaste and loyal outside of marriage, and there is nothing a man can do about it — not even hire guards to lock her up.
People love to quote Shakespeare, but when they do, it is almost always out of context. The best example may be the phrase "star-crossed lovers" from Romeo and Juliet. While many people apply the title to two people who are meant to be together, it actually means two people cursed by the fates, spited by the gods, or scorned by the stars. When it is spoken in the beginning of the play, it refers to Romeo and Juliet as "a pair of star-cross'd lover take their life." Not that this famous play was ever an exemplary love story to begin with, but the true meaning of this popular phrase really brings the story into a new light.
"Money is the root of all evil."
Though originally from the bible, this oft misquoted line from The Pardoner's Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is repeated and used incorrectly all the time. The actual quote, "Love of money is the root of all evil," expresses the idea that greed and the desire for wealth is at the core of most people's problems. However, it is often simplified to mean something closer to the idea that having money can create more problems.
"East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."
When people use this quote from Rudyard Kipling's "The Ballad of East and West," they are usually trying to argue against the idea that people from different places or with different beliefs can see eye to eye, and that is certainly how it sounds. That is, if you don't keep reading. In the context of the actual ballad, though, the speaker is trying to say the exact opposite. "But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth," the poem continues, "When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.” In essence, Kipling is saying that people are all the same, and our perceived differences are a matter of learning.
"Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love that makes the world go round."
In another case of a quote that means something entirely different if you understand who said it, Lewis Carroll's famous line from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland may sound sweet, but it is really meant sarcastically. When the Duchess, an awful, violent, and potentially murderous character utters the like "Oh, 'tis love, 'tis love that makes the world go round," she does so sarcastically and rather cruelly. In fact, she says it right after arguing on behalf of beating a baby. While it might be a nice sentiment for someone to write in a wedding card, in the context of the book it came from, it means anything but.
"The world's mine oyster"
Oh Shakespeare, will we ever get your wise words right? This famous quote from The Merry Wives of Windsor has become common phrase for people who have an optimistic outlook on life. Unfortunately, in context, this catchphrase will you give less of the warm-and-fuzzies, and more of the chills. When Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol a penny, he replies with the lines "Why then the world's mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open." Rather than expressing positivity about a world filled with wonder and opportunity, the quote really means that, in order to attain fortune, force and violence is necessary.
"So it goes."
Kurt Vonnegut repeats his favorite epitaph several times throughout his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, and those three little words — "So it goes." — have become one of the most popular literary quotes among nihilistic bookworms. The problem is, people aren't getting it quite right. In the context of the book, "So it goes" is the phrase that Tralfamadorians, an alien race, say when someone or something dies, and while many readers has taken it to mean that life is difficult and painful no matter what you do, the author actually used it as an optimistic reminder that, in the face of all that bad stuff, even death, moving on afterwards is what really matters. Life will keep on happening, so in response, we must keep going.
"No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves."
Author Haruki Murakami has been known to write a quoteworthy line or two, and this one from the short story "Birthday Girl" in his stunning collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is just one of them. The only problem is, it is usually used incorrectly because it is usually only partially shared. What is often left out is the last line. "No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves. That's all," the full quote reads. Rather than being an expression of self-acceptance and self-love that implies no matter what happens in life, people will always be who they are meant to be in the end, this rather pessimistic quote is pure resignation. No matter what you try and do, no matter how you try and strive to be different and change, it implies, in the end, you have little control of your life and who it makes you out to be.
"I don’t think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem."
Although this line is one of my favorites out of the endlessly quotable Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, it is also one of the most misused ones. When read alone, it sounds like a beautiful sentiment of optimism, positivity, and hope for a happy life. In context, though, the character who speaks it, Alex, is talking about his desire to mix fantasy with reality in his writing. After his mentor advises him to change part of his book, he starts to question whether or not he can change it to be happier. If that were allowed, Alex says, "I don’t think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem." So although people use this line to celebrate the wonder in life, it is actually about how fiction can make it merely seem better.
"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
If you've ever heard a friend utter this phrase after being double-crossed, you've understood right away not to mess with her. What you might not have know, though, is that the famous line from the 1697 play The Mourning Bride by William Congreve is actually the second half of a longer line that reads "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned / Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." While the catchphrase has come to represent the specific fierceness women who are wronged are capable of, it actually has less to do specifically with female rage, and more to do with the specific kind of hatred that comes from a soured love. The full quote is expressing the idea that there is no greater or stronger anger that comes from a broken heart; the "woman scorned" is just an example.