10 Famous Phrases That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

updated Aug 30, 2023
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Want some good fodder for your next night of pub trivia (or maybe you just want to ace a round of an online trivia app)? Impress your friends with this: Many of the famous phrases they know and use every day could have wildly different meanings than they think.

You see, language changes over time. In the course of history, sometimes sayings get shortened and mentions are misquoted. So the phrase we know and love some 200 plus years later… well — it’s a shell of what it used to be. Or, in other cases, clever additions to the original phrases were added over time.

The thing about secondhand sayings is it’s sometimes hard to track down the source, but here are 10 quotes that have lesser-known versions you might not have ever heard before.

Famous Phrases You Might Be Getting Wrong

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1. “The early bird gets the worm.”

The extended phrase: “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

Early risers and go-getters like to say “the early bird gets the worm,” but that’s not the whole phrase! The second part of the adage implies that first isn’t always best.  

2. “Carpe diem (seize the day).”

The extended phrase: “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero (seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow).”

The Roman poet Horace famously wrote “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day.” The lesser known latter part of the saying is “quam minimum credula postero” or “put very little trust in tomorrow.” While it doesn’t change the meaning too much, it gives the phrase more gravity.

3. “Winning isn’t everything.”

The extended phrase: Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Eternal underdogs are likely familiar with UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell (Red) Sanders’ “winning isn’t everything” quote (although this phrase is often attributed to legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi). That’s not the end of the proverb, though — the second half changes the meaning a bit, don’t you think? 

4. “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

The extended phrase: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

The opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III is famously bleak, calling to mind a cold and uneasy season. However, the full sentiment is more joyful: The tides are turning and the unhappy times are in the past. 

5. “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The extended phrase: “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.”

The original phrase warns against diving too deep into a needless investigation, but the later amendment, first recorded in American newspapers sometime in the early 1900’s, plays on the trope of cats’ nine lives to change the meaning: There’s pleasure in finding out something you really want to know.

6. “Great minds think alike.”

The extended phrase: “Great minds think alike, though fools seldom differ.”

When two friends have the same idea, one (or both) of them is likely to pipe up with the common version of the phrase. Next time, you can retort with this extended version — the etymology of which is mostly unknown — to put them back into their place: It’s foolish people, not great minds, that are more likely to have the same banal thoughts all the time.

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7. “Blood is thicker than water.”

The extended phrase: “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

People commonly use the shorter version of this phrase to suggest that familial relationships take priority over friendships or other non-blood-related bonds.

But some researchers believe that’s not exactly what it would have meant when and where it was used throughout history, instead offering the longer phrase as a more literal translation — one that directly contradicts the common meaning. A chosen blood covenant provides a stronger bond than any family.

8. “Money is the root of all evil.”

The extended phrase: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.”

This saying — both the full, original quote and the shortened common version — originate from a bible text that warns against greed. Reading the full version of the quote doesn’t completely change the meaning of the one we all know best, but it might shift your perception of it a bit: Having money isn’t a problem, it’s wanting money that’s sinful.

9. “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

The extended phrase: “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.”

This saying has been through a lot. It began as simply, “jack of all trades,” a mostly flattering term for a generalist who has honed many skills. Later, “master of none” was added on to change the phrase to something slightly derogatory, suggesting that the jack of all trades doesn’t know much at all.

The shady two-part phrase is what most know and use today, but at some point, it was amended again to check the haters. The full phrase says something like, “I know a little about a lot of things, and that’s better than having a limited skillset any day.”

10. “My country, right or wrong.”

The extended phrase: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong to be set right.”

This one is a direct quote by Carl Schurz, an American Senator, in 1872. The shorter, more common, saying is often used to pledge unwavering support for one’s country, regardless of politics. But his full quote takes on a different sentiment, certainly lighter on the moral blindness: This is my country, and I have a duty to steer it in the right direction.