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The insider's guide to misquotes

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(CNN) -- Get ready to tidy up your stock of pithily relevant quotes. A new book has been published that exposes many of history's favorite one-liners as inventions.

I'm not in the mood for an insider's guide today, like Garbo, "I want to be alone."

Shame, as you've helpfully demonstrated a common misquote. The moody Swedish screen siren didn't actually plead, "I want to be alone," in the 1932 film "Grand Hotel." What she did say was, "I want to be let alone."

Nobody likes a pedant.

OK, so it's not radically different admittedly, but there are plenty of other accepted quotes from films, historical figures and celebrities that have never been uttered, which a new book published this week called "What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotes" happily debunks. The book's author Elizabeth Knowles, however believes that misquotations are much more than mistakes. "From deliberate reworkings to unconscious changes, they show quotations on the move in our language -- and illuminate how we see famous people and notable events," she said.

So now you're going to tell me Napoleon never said, "Not tonight, Josephine" and Marie Antoinette didn't shriek, "Let them eat cake!"

Right. "Not tonight, Josephine," actually came from the title of a 1915 song and was later attributed to the diminutive French warmonger, nor is there any record of Marie Antoinette ever having said the masses should break out the pastries, it's more likely that was cooked up by the revolutionaries to stir the masses. What's interesting is how quotes regardless of whether they are real or not become synonymous with the people supposed to have uttered them. For Marie Antoinette, "this is a case where someone who seemed to epitomize the thoughtless frivolity of the time comes together with a well-known phrase from later years," says Knowles. The list doesn't just cover historical lines, but also modern classics like "Beam me up, Scotty." In an amusing twist on how these accepted phrases become linguistic furniture, "Beam me up, Scotty" was only close to being said in the forth Star Trek film, (William Shatner actually says, "Scotty, beam me up") by which time the phrase was as common as the other misquote from the sci-fi series, "It's life Jim, but not as we know it."

All very post-modern.

Why else do these misquotes hang around? Sometimes they're much more interesting than the real quote and easier to remember. During an interview marking his engagement with Diana Spencer, Prince Charles was asked whether he was in love. His reply is commonly noted as "Yes, whatever 'in love' means," which took on extra resonance when their marriage fell apart. His actually answer was: "Yes, whatever that may mean," which was no less weird and diffident, but not as memorable.

I prefer throwing in bit of Shakespeare to make me sound learned: "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well..."

I'll have to stop you there, before you bastardize the work of the bard any more. If you're going to quote more than line you really should know your stuff. Don't, for example, follow in the steps of Barbara Streisand. At a U.S. Democratic Party fund-raiser in 2002 she recited what she thought was a passage from Julius Caesar in a thinly-veiled criticism of George Bush. It was actually taken from the Internet and written by someone to sound vaguely Shakespearean. "It doesn't detract from the fact that the words themselves are powerful and true and beautifully written," she said. Apparently.

Other misquotes and lines people did not say:

"Lead on Macduff."

From Macbeth, the line is actually, "Lay on Macduff."

"Play it again, Sam"

Was not said by Humphrey Bogart in the film "Casablanca."

"The British are coming!"

There is no evidence of Paul Revere shouting this, and it is unlikely that he would have used the term "British" as many colonists saw themselves as British at the time. Neither does the line feature in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride."


story.napoleon.jpg

"Not tonight, Josephine." Or any night, as there is no record of Napoleon ever saying this.

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