misquotations

Many catchphrases and allusive expressions are based on altered forms of literary quotations. The proverb Every dog has his day is based on a 16c adage translated from the Dutch humanist Erasmus1500) and was given currency by a line spoken by Shakespeare's Hamlet:

Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat shall mew, and dog will have his day

, Hamlet, v.i.286.

The idiom to escape by the skin of one's teeth is an altered form of the Authorized Version of Job 19:20: I am escaped with the skin of my teeth. Idiom and allusion go their own way in language; however, it is important to give the correct form when the allusion is given as a quotation. The following table lists the correct forms of some of the more common literary extracts, with the popular versions alongside:

quotation

popular form

source

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread

by the sweat of one's brow

Bible, Genesis 3:19

I am escaped with the skin of my teeth

to escape by the skin of one's teeth

Bible, Job 19:20

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily

to gild the lily

Shakespeare, King John

A goodly apple rotten at the heart

rotten at the core

Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

But yet I'll make assurance double sure

doubly sure

Shakespeare, Macbeth

Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new

fresh fields and pastures new

Milton, Lycidas

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way

the even tenor

Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard

A little learning is a dangerous thing

a little knowledge

Pope, Essay on Criticism

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley

the best-laid plans

Burns, ‘To a Mouse’

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink

And not a drop to drink

Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat

blood, sweat, and tears

Winston Churchill, Hansard, 1940