In 1951, O’Toole explains, a more literary version of the same principle appeared in “The Tyranny of Love,” a short story by a writer named Harry Kronman published in Esquire magazine.

“I mean, if you love something very much, you’ve got to go easy with it—give it some room to move around. If you try to hold it tight like that, it’ll always try to get away.”

Today’s iteration of the quote may have come from a college student. In 1969, an American professor named Jess Lair self-published a quotation in a book of writing that included samples from his students and one was much closer to what’s circulating now. O’Toole reports that the students had to write on index cards at the beginning of every class, and whatever they wrote didn’t have to be original, so it’s possible that a student made it up or copied it from someone else, or that it was already a saying people shared at that time.

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” 

Steve Jobs would have you believe that Pablo Picasso said this. The late founder of Apple twice told the world that he subscribed to the same belief, attributing the quote to Picasso in a newspaper story and during a televised interview.

O’Toole, however, believes the maxim was drawn from a line that had a very different message. In 1892, the author of a Gentleman’s Magazine article about plagiarism wrote: “The great poets imitate and improve; whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

So was it the small and not the great who steal?

According to O’Toole’s research, T.S. Eliot wrote a book of essays about 30 years later and changed its meaning to celebrate intellectual theft, when done properly: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Other writers and musicians have been credited with the shorter adage that Jobs repeated, too, with “poets” replaced by “musician” or “artist,” for example.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

I can’t think of a quotation that has outworn its welcome more than this one. We’re told that it’s a nugget from Ralph Waldo Emerson that urges us to pay more attention to our experiences than to achievements, and is often pronounced following a setback.

But O’Toole found the first precursor to this saying in “Sunday at Home: A family magazine for Sabbath reading” published in 1853. That publication told readers of its kids section that life “is a journey, not a rest” and that our time from cradle to grave is a passage to the promised land. The same notion—that life is merely a delivery vehicle for our trip to the afterlife—later appeared in other religious texts.

That said, Emerson did write a less easily quoted passage that’s closer but not identical in meaning to what is repeated today. I wish more people would use this, even if wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker:

To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history”

Today this quotation serves as a spur to self-professed “nasty women,” and a warning to women who believe they can achieve greatness without breaking any social rules. In popular culture folklore, presented as fact, it is spoken by the iconoclastic film star Marilyn Monroe.

“The modern interpretation, I think, highlights the value of protest and civil-disobedience, i.e., making history,” says O’Toole in an email to Quartz. But that wasn’t where this quotation started. The historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first wrote these words in an essay in 1976, but her point wasn’t so much to glorify those who break social convention. “She was interested in the lives of women who were well-behaved,” says O’Toole. “She believed that their lives were important and should be recorded.”

The book dissects the history of dozens of phrases, including beloved quotations attributed to Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, Anton Chekhov, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Jon Stewart. Often the most repeated phrases are found to originate with a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, lesser-known comedian, or even a student. Sometimes it’s an anonymous saying or Chinese proverb grabbed out of the air by a celebrity, which “increases its popularity and transmissibility,” says O’Toole.

Why does O’Toole do all this sleuthing? Because he’d like history to give credit where credit is due, he says—and now that we have the digital tools to set things straight, why not? “I also find it entertaining to see how the quotations have changed over time,” he says.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting quotations wrong,” he adds. “When I’m on Twitter. I see people using quotes wrong all the time.” He never corrects people because, he says, “that would be obnoxious.”

Despite the hazards involved, people will probably never stop quoting famous or poetic lines. As British writer Dorthy L. Sayers (allegedly) said, “It saves original thought.”

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