“One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.” One of the most famous lines in human history, and probably the coolest. In one succinct, memorable phrase, Neil Armstrong reduced humanity’s greatest technical achievement to a single gesture, something everyone on earth could share, without diminishing its importance or impressiveness. While there’s never been a cooler line than that, some have come pretty close. Here are 42 facts about the coolest lines in history.
42. The Italian
A chilling reality of the modern world is how exposed we all are to acts of terror. In the 21st century, terrorist groups take advantage of the global media to spread images of their evil acts around the world, including beheadings of hostages. One such unfortunate victim was Fabrizzio Quattrocchi, an Italian security guard, who was taken hostage by a group called the Green Brigade of the Prophet. Moments away from his murder, certain of his death, Quattrocchi tore away his hood and screamed in noble defiance: “I’ll show you how an Italian dies.”
41. Molon Labe
In 480 BC, the Spartan king Leonidas faced off against the invading Persians at Thermopylae. The Spartans were vastly outmanned and stood no chance against the Persians. In consideration, the Persian king Xerxes offered to spare the Spartans if they turned over their weapons. Leonidas replied “molon labe,” which means “Come and take them.” The Spartans gained a reputation for pithy responses after that; from their region of Greece, Laconia, we get the word “laconic.”
40. The Cosmonaut
Neil Armstrong might have found the perfect line for the moment he stepped onto the moon. But what Armstrong achieved in poetry, his Soviet counterpart Yuri Gagarin made up for in enthusiasm. With the successful launch of the Vostok 1 rocket, Gagarin became the first human being in space. His irrepressible “Let’s go!” was the perfect statement as humankind entered a bold new frontier of achievement and exploration.
39. The Napping Philosopher
Philip’s son, Alexander, went on to be a pretty great conqueror in his own right. But just as the Spartans were not afraid of Philip, not everybody was afraid of Alexander. Wishing to pay his respects to Diogenes, Alexander set out to visit the philosopher and grant him a wish. He did, after all, have all of Greece at his command. When he arrived, the great philosopher was resting on the ground. Alexander stood above Diogenes and asked if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes waved him away, saying “Yes, stand a little out of my sun.”
The great mathematician Archimedes had a problem: King Hiero II of Syracuse had been given a golden crown that he didn’t think was pure gold, and he wanted Archimedes to find out for sure. That would be easy enough to figure out if Archimedes could cut the crown open, but Hiero wanted it intact; an irregular shaped object that Archimedes couldn’t manipulate made finding the density (i.e. the gold-content) of the crown difficult. All his ideas exhausted, Archimedes took a bath to clear his head.
Sinking into the bath, he noticed how his own volume displaced the water. The same might be true of the crown: the submerged object would displace the amount of water equal to its own volume. Archimedes could then use the crown’s mass and this new-found volume to calculate the density of the crown, which would be lower than gold if the crown had been adulterated (as it turned out, it had).
Upon figuring this out, Archimedes’ ran out into the street naked, forgetting that he had been bathing just a moment before. His triumphant shout of “Eureka!” (I have found it!) gave successful scientists a catchphrase they’re still using 2,000 years later.
37. Graine Mhaol
Graine Mhaol, daughter of an Irish lord, proved a proud, strong-headed woman from an early age. She went on to inherit the leadership of the Ó Máille clan at Umhall. As British control of the island increased, a series of power struggles among the Irish lords threatened her control of the region. Upon the death of her first husband, Graine remarried to Richard Burke, who controlled territory in Carraighowley, close to Mhaol’s territory in Umhall. After one year of marriage, Burke returned home to find his clothing outside and the doors locked. From inside her new castle, Mhaol stated bluntly “Richard Burke, I dismiss you.”
36. To Heaven by Sea
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a close advisor of Queen Elizabeth and half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, tried his best to found a permanent colony on the island of Newfoundland. But bad weather, bad leadership, and sheer bad luck led to a total failure. Limping back to England, having already lost one of the ships in his fleet, Gilbert and his crew met with a storm off the Azores. Gilbert’s luck was terrible but in the face of certain disaster he retained his resolve. The surviving sailors reported his final moments were spent on the bow of his ship, glaring into storm, screaming encouragement to his men: “Cheer up, lads! We’re as near to Heaven by sea as by land!”
35. Perfectly Composed
The definition of a prodigy, Mozart was writing complex musical arrangements by the time most of us are learning to tie our shoes. An admirer told Mozart he had begun working on a symphony and asked the great composer his advice. Mozart let him down gently: symphonies, he said, are very complicated, and it might be better to start with a lieder. The admirer pressed on, pointing out that Mozart wrote his first symphony at eight years old. Fed up, Mozart shot back, “Yes, but I never asked anybody how.”
34. For Honor
Robert Surcouf was a French privateer who distinguished himself in many battles against the British during the long-standing battle for naval—and colonial—supremacy. Once, having been captured, a British naval officer challenged Surcouf: “We British fight for honor, while you French fight for money.” Surcouf replied coolly, “Yes, each of us fights for what he lacks most.”
33. Nobel Prize Speech
Malala Yousafzai was just fifteen years old when she was shot in the head on her way to school. Yousafzai recovered, and used the media attention garnered by the attack to advocate for women and girls who, like her, could only obtain an education under great duress and danger. A global superstar for peace and equality, Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, when she was only seventeen. In her speech, she laid out in plain terms what exactly was troubling our world: “Why is it that giving guns is so easy but giving books is so hard?” Such wisdom and dedication from someone so young is truly inspiring.
32. The Pragmatist
As free-thinking French essayist Voltaire lay on his deathbed, a priest arrived to administer Last Rites. When the priest asked Voltaire to renounce Satan, Voltaire piped up: “Now is not the time for making new enemies.”
31. Take Action!
Sitting Bull is responsible for some fantastic quotes. His words to his soldiers before fighting to victory at the Battle of Little Big Horn, “This is a good day to die. Follow me!” show the steely nerve that made the great chief famous. The American government considered him a fugitive and attempted to arrest him, even as he exiled himself to Canada. Sitting Bull’s final words were equally heroic, tragic, and comic, taunting and hectoring the American soldiers who had come to assassinate him: “I’m not going. Come on! Come on! Take action! Let’s Go!”
30. Right on Target
Switzerland famously stays neutral during wars. To stay neutral, however, a nation must be fairly confident that no one could drag them into a war in the first place. So it is with Switzerland, whose military is composed of expert marksmen. In 1912, on the eve of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany visited Switzerland to observe the Swiss military. The whole army only totaled half a million people, prompting Wilhelm to ask, “So if I send a million men, what do you do?” A Swiss officer replied, “Shoot twice and go home.”
29. Wilde Wit
Playwright Oscar Wilde’s “Either this wallpaper goes or I do,” counts among some of the most famous last lines in history. But that was all in a day’s work for Wilde. A hedonist to the very end, he drank champagne on his deathbed and lamented “Alas, I am dying beyond my means.”
28. Wilde’s Rival
Of course, it’s possible that someone had used that line before Wilde got to it. At least one famous artist, James McNeil Whistler, thought of Wilde as a plagiarist, particularly of Whistler’s own formidable wit. Once at a party, after Whistler had made a biting remark, Wilde chimed in, saying, “I wish I’d said that.” Whistler, reluctant to humor the playwright, merely replied: “You will, Oscar, you will.”
27. From Beyond the Grave…
If Wilde had an American equivalent, it was the humorist Mark Twain, who combined sardonic wit with plainspoken American folksiness. As the author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain was adored by the whole nation, and people were in grief when a May 1897 edition of the New York Journal reported Twain was on his deathbed. This prompted Twain to announce, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
26. “Watson, come here…”
“Watson, come here, I want you.” These were the first words ever spoken over the telephone when Alexander Graham Bell called his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was working in another room. It’s not exactly a stirring, inspirational quote, but it forever changed the way human beings communicate, and led to the breakthroughs which gave us radio, television, and the internet.
25. That’s No Bull!
During a 1912 campaign speech in Milwaukee, famously macho president Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the president sighed, “I don’t know whether fully you understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” Roosevelt proceeded to speak, the bullet lodged in his chest, for another 90 minutes.
24. The Countess
Revolutionary, socialist, and suffragette, Constance Markievicz was a major figure in the Irish Rebellion, taking part in the 1916 Easter Uprising. “The Countess” had grown up in wealth and privilege, and studied art in Paris, but her outlook put her at odds with most of her contemporaries. For example, here’s some fashion advice from the Countess: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
23. You Lose
Calvin Coolidge was remarkably unremarkable. He was neither wildly popular, nor universally hated, and his presidency passed with neither scandal, nor crisis, nor triumph. The steady-as-she-goes mood of his presidency was matched by his notoriously soft-spoken manner. The press called him “Silent Cal,” but beneath that quiet demeanor was a vicious wit. Once at a dinner a woman approached him and said, “I made a bet today that I could get you to say more than two words to me.” Coolidge turned, replied “You lose,” and walked away.
22. Don’t You Know Me?
In the dim afternoon, as Peter Sørrle, manager of a whaling camp, worked in his office, a knock came on the door. There were three strangers with matted hair and filthy clothes. They looked as if they hadn’t eaten in a week. Then one of the men spoke up: “Do you know me? My name is Shackleton.” It was Ernest Shackleton, the explorer who had passed through three years earlier on his way to trans-navigate Antarctica. His ship had wrecked, stranding his team on the unforgiving continent. Starved, exhausted, and frost-bitten, Shackleton and a small crew had marched across Antarctica, rafted across the raging south Atlantic, and crawled over South Georgia Island to Sørrle’s whaling camp. When a rescue crew was arranged, Shackleton was reunited with his crew. Not a single soul was lost.
Gangster Al Capone was simultaneously one of the most loved and feared men in America. He was flamboyant, flagrant, and used his ill-gotten gains to help the people in his community. He could also be brutally violent and didn’t hesitate to remove anyone who might interfere with his business. It makes perfect sense that people attribute to Capone the quote, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” While we’re sure Scarface agreed with the sentiment, the statement actually comes from humourist Irwin Corey.
Dorothy Parker, an American poet, novelist, and critic, was one of the leading voices of the Jazz Age, renowned for her wit, which she gladly dispensed from her headquarters at the Algonquin Hotel. She was also an utter hedonist. Her fun-first attitude sometimes got in the way of her work. While on her honeymoon, an editor sent a telegram to remind her of an impending deadline. Parker sent back the message “Tell him I’m too f***ing busy—and vice versa.”
19. Retreat, Hell
The 51st company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment were sent to Belleau Wood to back up a battalion of French soldiers. When they arrived, they found the French hastening back to their camp; they were overwhelmed and insisted the Americans retreat. The commanding officer of the company stared at the French soldier and cried “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” Nine days later, that officer, Capt. Lloyd Williams would be killed in battle. The 2nd Battalion would adopt the motto “Retreat, Hell” in his honor.
18. A Reckless Fellow
Also at the Battle of Belleau Wood was Sergeant Major Dan Daly of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, a man Major General Butler called “the fightin’est Marine I ever knew.” Leading a dangerous charge into enemy lines, Daly shouted back to his troops “Come on! Do you sons-of-b*tches want to live forever!?” A German private at Belleau Wood wrote: “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
17. Poison Tongue
Quips came naturally to Winston Churchill. He was after all a Nobel Prize-winning author and expert orator. Churchill was beloved in Great Britain for leading them through the second World War, but also for his sense of humor, the epitome of acerbic British wit. According to one story, Lady Astor scolded Churchill for his drinking and ill-temper, saying “If I were married to you, I would poison your coffee.” Churchill sniffed, “If I were married to you, Nancy, I’d drink it.”
16. The Lion of Africa
Undefeated during the First World War, Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck was beloved by the German people, who called him the Lion of Africa. When Hitler rose to power, he was eager to associate himself with the war hero and attempted to offer him a position as ambassador to the United Kingdom. Von Lettow-Vorbeck recognized Hitler for what he was and wanted no part of it. While I can’t repeat his reply here, I can assure you it was blunt and effective.
15. They’ve Got Us Surrounded
We’ve featured a lot of war stories here so far. Times of crisis seem to stir people’s courage, but their creativity also. During the Battle of the Bulge, nearly 30 Nazi battalions closed in on the 101st Airborne Division. A soldier asked a unnamed medic why people weren’t be evacuated. The man responded, “Haven’t you heard? They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor b*stards.”
As a catcher for the New York Yankees, and later as manager for the hapless New York Mets, Yogi Berra was beloved by the people of New York City for his snappy, but nonsensical, remarks. Baseball, he said, was “90% physical. The other half is mental.” If he didn’t want to go to a restaurant, he’d explain “Nobody goes there now, it’s too popular.” But perhaps the finest Yogi-ism came at the end of his career. Reminiscing with a reporter from a Long Island newspaper, Berra sighed “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
13. The Biggest Laugh in History
Over a nearly 70-year career in show business, Jack Benny had carefully crafted his stage persona: the Jack Benny his audience saw was vain, self-aggrandizing, and above all, cheap. Benny got what some people said was the biggest laugh in radio history on March 28, 1948. During an episode of the Jack Benny Program, Benny got held up. A mugger, played by Eddie Marr, crept up behind Benny and demanded “This is a stick-up. Your money or your life.” When Benny hesitated, the mugger said again “Look, bud, I said your money or life!” An exasperated Benny cried out “Well I’m thinking it over!”
As the most talkative of the legendary Marx Brothers, and host of the game show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx’s smart-mouth quips made him one of the most popular and influential comedians of his day. His final words to his wife, “Die? That’s the last thing I intend to do!” are the perfect example of his sense of humor: A snappy rejoinder that gets funnier the longer you think about it.
In the fourth century BC, Philip II of Macedon campaigned against the Greek city-states. Having conquered most of southern Greece, he sent a message to Sparta, which read, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartans replied with a single word: “If.” Suffice it to say, Philip did not attack Sparta.
10. The Rebel
The military genius behind the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara spent the years after the triumph in Cuba trying to spark similar revolutions in other Latin American countries. Though he became a living legend among would-be revolutionaries, the left-wing militant won no friends among the governments of those other countries, or the United States. When a joint force of CIA agents and Bolivian soldiers tracked him down to a Bolivian farmhouse, Guevara remained fearless and defiant. “Shoot, coward,” he spat at one of the agents, “you’re only going to kill a man.”
Pablo Picasso was perhaps the greatest artist of the 20th century. He knew it, too. Picasso once said “When I was a child my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as pope.’ Instead, I became a painter, and wound up as Picasso.” Now, if anyone other than Picasso said that, you’d hate them, but you gotta respect someone who knows their worth.
8. I Am Become Death…
When J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the destructive power of his creation, the atomic bomb, he quoted a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It’s a perfect quote, because no matter how you feel about it, the quote will back you up: was it the hysterical ravings of a mad scientist, or the lament of a man who immediately regretted unleashing a horrible force upon the world? The only thing is, Oppenheimer didn’t say it. Not just then, anyway. Oppenheimer did not hit upon the quote until years later, when filming the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb.
7. Just Watch Me
The election of Pierre Elliott Trudeau to prime minister in 1968 ushered in a new era of confidence and energy in Canada. Trudeau was eloquent, charismatic, and flamboyant—he once performed a mocking pirouette behind the back of Queen Elizabeth II. But when Quebec nationalists kidnapped a foreign diplomat in 1970, Trudeau faced a crisis so great he considered invoking the War Measures Act, effectively establishing military rule in Quebec, a step considered too drastic by many Canadians. When a reporter asked him point blank how far would he be willing to extend these measures, Trudeau scoffed “Just watch me.”
6. A Seat at the Table
Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, was the kind of woman to make her own opportunities. In 1968 she became the first black woman to run for president of the United States. When she was denied the opportunity to run as the Democratic candidate, she ran as an independent, saying “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
5. Hidden Figures
Karen Spärck Jones was a pioneer of computer science. She is credited with inventing Inverse Document Frequency, a key component in the development of search engines. With a career in computer science that went all the way back to the 1950s, Spärck Jones knew first hand the struggles women had in entering the field, and was an outspoken advocate for women in tech. She was found of saying “Computing is too important to be left to men.”
Live Broadcast of the Karen Spärck Jones Lecture 2017
4. The Audition
No rock band had ever matched the popularity and critical success of the Beatles, but by the end of the 1960s the band was running out of steam. No longer touring, and itching to spend more time on their individual careers, the band were on the verge of breaking up. On January 30, 1969, the Beatles played one final set for their fans, performing on the roof of their Saville Row headquarters. When the music ended, 42 minutes later, John Lennon called out “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
3. The Greatest
The only thing Muhammad Ali did better than box was talk. His boasts are legendary, and many cite the rhymes he made up to taunt his opponents as an influence on rap music. But Ali did not like to be thought of as a blowhard. Asked about his brags, he explained “Bragging is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.”
2. The Followup
Everyone remembers Armstrong’s famous declaration when he first set foot on the moon (“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind). His next words, “The surface looks fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe” don’t have quite the same poetic quality, but considering no one had felt the surface of the moon before, the description itself is pretty important.
1. Go Ahead, Shoot Your Emperor
Napoleon was in total exile when he met enemy soldiers. He convinced them to fight for him with just six words. Even after his defeat, abdication, and exile, would-be emperor Napoleon never gave up his goal of gaining control of France and eventually all of Europe. Exiled to Elba after his defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon escaped the island and landed on the French mainland. There he met a regiment who had been sent to prevent him from reaching Paris. Napoleon looked at the soldiers and declared “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.” Impressed with his audacity, the soldiers joined Napoleon on his march to Paris and helped him reclaim the throne of France.
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