Perhaps you live by the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” Or Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If so, Brian Morton has bad news for you: Neither Thoreau nor Gandhi ever really said those things. Yes, those “gauzy slogans” may be somewhat close to words they did say, but the true meaning is quite different than the “pithy, cheery” motto emblazoned on your bumper sticker or coffee mug. In tweaking the wording, “not only [is] the syntax lost, but the subtlety as well," Morton writes in the New York Times.
Read Thoreau’s full quote, for example, and you’ll see that he’s not actually promising you the life you’ve always imagined. He’s saying that if you try to live that life, you’ll “come closer to it than we might ordinarily think possible,” Morton writes. And once you start looking for these non-quotes, you'll realize that they're everywhere. And while those being misquoted were indeed "dreamers of beautiful dreams ... what goes missing in the slogans is that they were also sober, steely men." We live in a world where we believe in reinvention, but these leaders "knew that thoroughgoing change, whether personal or social, involves humility and sacrifice, and that the effort to change oneself or the world always exacts a price."