Verbal mistakes of the famous and not-so-famous

Embarrassed dog

“I KNEW I shouldn’t have said that, doggone it!” Image courtesy of xandert, Morguefile.

It’s amazing what people think they know. I’ve seen this trend a lot on LinkedIn lately. One person pontificates: “Print communications are dead!” Another blares: “Nobody uses press releases anymore!”

Funny thing — Printed junk mail advertisements still show up in my mailbox and I keep seeing press releases around. When everybody stops using these methods of communication, THEN I’ll believe they’re dead.

It’s wacky, the things that people believe. Back in history, many people in Europe didn’t eat tomatoes because they had a reputation for being poisonous. I kid you not. According to the Smithsonian blog, tomatoes got their reputation because they were often served on pewter plates, which caused the plates to leach lead due to the acidity of the tomatoes.

This weekend, I came across a book I had received as a Christmas present from the parents of my British friend, H. These parents have a lively sense of humor and gave me a book called I Wish I’d Never Said That: Everlasting Gaffes Of The Famous. So for your entertainment today, I’m showing off some of the funniest excerpts from the book:

Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer, in Vogue magazine, 1966: “Houses will be able to fly by 2000. The time may come when whole communities may migrate south in the winter.” (Okay, he got the southern migration part right. Around here, we call ’em retirees or college students on spring break.)

E.G. Alton, British cigar maker, to John Player, discussing Player’s new product called a “cigar-ette”: “Your cigar-ettes will never be popular.”

A Yale Professor of Economics, October 1929: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (One week later: the infamous stock market crash.)

Advertising agents to Guinness brewing company, 1955, about their proposed book, the Guinness Book of Records: “It was amateurish, inaccurate and would never catch on.”

Munich Technical Institute in 1898, in relation to their refusal to admit a new student, Albert Einstein: “This student shows no promise.”

Robert Southey, British poet laureate, in response to an 1836 inquiry by an author asking if she could make a living as a writer: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.” (The author: Charlotte Brontë. She produced Jane Eyre, one of her most famous books, about 10 years later.)

Hollywood talent scout about a screen test by a new actor: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” (Actor’s name: Fred Astaire.)

Dr. Dionysius Lardner, professor of natural philosophy and astronomy at University College of London about train travel: “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.”

Record company Decca, rejecting a new four-person group for their label: “Go back to Liverpool, Mr. Epstein. Four-groups are out.”

San Francisco Examiner editor, 1889, about a refusal to use articles by Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

1907 interview with a shipping line captain: “I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about…nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story.” (The captain: E.J. Smith of the Titanic.)


Filed under Writing

42 responses to “Verbal mistakes of the famous and not-so-famous

  1. You gotta figure the guys who turned down the Beatles were not thrilled with their decision. Like the people who told Bill Gates that Windows would never work. Oops.

  2. Ha! Love these. I couldn’t help imagine, though, how many people around them — bowing to their apparent expertise — probably agreed! It would be hard to argue with anyone named Dr. Dionysius Lardner — or any titled academic for that matter. We still do the same thing today. We put too much faith in credentials and not enough in our own research, wisdom and gut.

  3. Perfect candidates for “Better to keep mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
    Really got a laugh over these (oh, and luckily that concept that bathing was bad for your health also was disproved!)

  4. Those were so funny, I particularly liked the Einstein one. This is why we should take any predictions or assertions about the future with a pinch of salt, no matter who says them! There are so many things we use in our everyday lives that people, even us (even us!), thought would never catch on a few years ago.

  5. travelrat

    I’ve got a few of my own … ‘They’ll never make an affordable colour printer in my lifetime’ is the best example.

  6. You always wonder about times such as the Beatles experienced. I suppose these short-term disappointments strengthen the resolve and lead to a more focused effort. I love these type of stories. We get in trouble when we let our opinion have its own life sometimes.

  7. librarylady

    I never pay attention to movie reviews. I’ve gone to too many great movies that were panned. Also, think of all the great books that were turned down by multiple publishers. Better to think for yourself, and keep your mouth shut if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  8. limebirdkate

    What a chuckle I got out of these. Ironic for me because just this Thanksgiving my cousin brought up the dangers of serving my mother’s tomato aspic salad on her pewter plates. No one knew if it was a real concern, so we threw some leaves of lettuce on the bottom and we were good to go. No lead poisoning here!

  9. “It’ll never fly, Orville.”

  10. Great post. Made me laugh. That book must be a riot to read.

  11. I’m sure they thought they were correct at the time.

  12. Actually, the big crash came much later in 1934 (I think…coulda been 1933), after FDR was in office. Most folks don’t know that because history about FDR was positive until revisionists historians (economists) actually looked at the numbers.

    Smithsonian is wrong. Tomatoes were believed to be poisonous because they are in the Nightshade family. Yes, Pewter contained lead, but more things than tomatoes leached them. Old pewter teapots were killers.

    Houses fly? Seen the snowbirds with their RVs on Route 81? He might have been correct. Dianne

  13. PS I wrote the Wiki article on John Gerard referenced in the article, for one of my graduate history classes.

      • From the Smithsonian article—–
        But what really did the tomato in, according to Smith’s research, was John Gerard’s publication of Herball in 1597 which drew heavily from the agricultural works of Dodoens and l’Ecluse (1553). According to Smith, most of the information (which was inaccurate to begin with) was plagiarized by Gerard, a barber-surgeon who misspelled words like Lycoperticum in the collection’s rushed final product. Smith quotes Gerard:

        Gerard considered ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savour.’… The fruit was corrupt which he left to every man’s censure. While the leaves and stalk of the tomato plant are toxic, the fruit is not.

        Gerard’s opinion of the tomato, though based on a fallacy, prevailed in Britain and in the British North American colonies for over 200 years.

        Although some misinformed writers say Gerard plagiarized his work, this accusation is disputed by modern revisionist scholars, and it annoys me that people repeat these libelous claims. I did much research on this subject for a grad “history of science” class, and could not answer this question as definitively as ‘Smith’ did. Good historians don’t write declarative sentences. History is constantly rewritten as new information becomes available, not unlike science. (sorry..just a pet peeve of mine)

  14. Impybat

    “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” ~ Thomas Watson, a former CEO of IBM. We have this one hanging on the bulletin board outside our computer lab at school.

  15. Brahm Capoor

    My personal favourite is what Mitt Romney told a heckler:

    “Corporations are people, my friend.”

    Need I say more?

  16. I like future predictions when they’re imaginative or for the good of mankind. These kind of predictions, are just attention seekers trying to be ‘thought leaders’ or so called ‘experts’. They’re still very much in use, not as much as they used to be but they’re not entirely out of fashion!

    Can you imagine if they would have said that about the Sony Walkman? :O

  17. I did not know the Guinness people were one and the same, funny how I never connected that!

  18. Thank you for sharing those! You know what I would like to read now? The reactions of these people when they realised their mistake… though I reckon they’d probably try to cover it all up. Shame. =[


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