The New Yale Book of Quotations 
edited by Fred R. Shapiro.
Yale, 1136 pp., £35, October 2021, 978 0 300 20597 8
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TheNew Yale Book of Quotations gives you a snippet of more or less everything. There are lines from poets and pop stars and politicians and philosophers, as well as words ascribed to people with jobs that don’t begin with ‘p’, such as film stars and novelists and historians. It includes some proverbs, nursery rhymes, advertising slogans and a category called ‘sayings’, for example, ‘Kilroy was here’ (learnedly traced to the Kearns Air Force Post Review of 1945) and ‘get a life’ (which it’s hard to believe wasn’t used before the Washington Post of 23 January 1983). ‘Sayings’ occupy the indefinable hinterland between proverbs and the kind of thing usually called ‘quotations’, which are remarks like ‘the golden rule is that there are no golden rules,’ made by people like George Bernard Shaw. The Yale Book lists these under the names of their authors, along with brief indications of their provenance and reliability. Books of quotations are no longer sources of things you might want to say or cite – after all, you can Google and copy and paste as much of that text stuff as you like – but have become in effect books of anti-misquotations (though don’t expect to see that word on a title page any time soon). Their main function is to tell you who didn’t quite say what. Any modern book of quotations will inform you, for instance, that ‘let them eat cake’ was attributed by Rousseau in 1766-67 to ‘a great princess’, and that this was well before Marie Antoinette was even betrothed to the future Louis XVI. But the huge rag-bag of political wisdom, bons mots, slogans, catchphrases, lines from novels and economic obiter dicta gathered together in the Yale Book does bring to mind a quotation from the only song by David Byrne for which it finds space: ‘You may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?’

How did we get here? What can the history of books of quotations tell us about what they’re now expected to contain? As everybody knows, ‘there is no new thing under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9, often quoted as ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’), and there’s nothing new about quoting. Lines from Virgil figure among the graffiti at Pompeii and phrases from Euripides have been found at Herculaneum. These were inscribed less in the spirit of surreal anarchism that makes people write ‘Kilroy was here’ on lavatory walls than out of respect for either the authors or the authority of what they had written. The earliest writings on the art of rhetoric were also in a way books of quotations, since they gathered together passages ascribed to master rhetoricians such as Cicero, which they used to illustrate particular figures of speech. ‘Quotations’ have therefore served both a stylistic and ethically normative function throughout literate history.

European books explicitly devoted to gathering quotations first emerged in academic and religious environments, and were conceived as both summations of and short cuts to learning. Thomas of Ireland’s Manipulus Florum (‘Handful of Flowers’) was compiled in Paris around 1306. It lists quotations under topical headings such as ‘superbia’ (pride) and ‘perseverantia’ (perseverance). Thomas’s careful indexing and cross-referencing of his quotations made the Manipulus a perfect tool for the medieval preacher who wished to appear more learned than he or his bishop actually was. It remained popular well into the era of print, though eventually it was drowned beneath the wave of printed commonplace books and saws and nosegays of flowers culled from Terence and Plautus that flowed from European presses in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The first book printed in England to carry a date (though it probably wasn’t the first English printed book) was The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, published by William Caxton in 1477, which grouped a miscellany of moral sayings under authorial headings. Many of the ‘quotations’ gathered in this ramshackle way would have made their ‘authors’ wince: Homer is said to have written ‘A good man is bettir thanne alle maner beestis, and in lyke wise an evel man is wors and more foule thanne any beest of the erthe,’ which is more like a misquotation of something Aristotle said in the Politics than a misquotation of Homer. In 1500, the great gatherer of words Desiderius Erasmus produced a collection of Adagia, which swelled in successive editions to include more than four thousand sayings and proverbs (‘war is sweet to those who have not tried it’), many of which were accompanied by extensive glosses. The Adagia went through around 150 editions in the 16th century, and was quoted, cut, expanded, reprinted, requoted and translated more times than anyone can count.

Books of adages, and collections called things like Flowers from Terence, are the ancestors of which modern books of quotations might boast in a family tree. But the modern book of quotations is also the bastard offspring of the early modern jest book, which ascribed jokes and smart sayings to well-known figures such as the poet John Skelton or the fool Richard Tarleton. Jest-book-style anecdotes were often transcribed alongside more serious quotations in manuscript notebooks compiled by individual readers. So in 1601, the lawyer John Manningham recorded in what’s usually called his ‘diary’ (though really it’s more like a commonplace book) the quotation (though really it’s more like a paraphrase): ‘All our new corne comes out of old fields, and all our newe learning is gathered out of old bookes (Chaucer).’ Manningham also noted down juicy tales about famous people, including one in which Shakespeare overheard the actor Richard Burbage arranging a tryst with a woman after a performance of Richard III. By the time the unfortunate Burbage arrived, Shakespeare was already ‘entertained and at his game’ with the lady, and is quoted as having said to his rival ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’

By 1600 the status of vernacular authors was high enough for them to be ‘quoted’ in the same way as classical poets, and so nosegays of flowers culled from modern writers began to smell like money, to publishers at least. England’s Parnassus, or the Choicest Flowers of Our Modern Poets gathered quotations from contemporary vernacular authors under topical headings from ‘Angels’ to ‘Youth’ along with (usually accurate) ascriptions to ‘W. Shakespeare’ or ‘M. Drayton’. At around the same time, what we call a ‘quotation mark’ (”), the descendant of the diplē (>), which had been used to mark notable passages in manuscripts, began to be used to mark sententiae, or memorable phrases, in vernacular works. These could also be highlighted by italic type, or by a pointing finger in the margin (the manicule, ☛). By using these typographical conventions writers and printers could in effect plant flowers, lines tagged as ‘quotations’, in the minds of their readers. And it worked. Most of the lines italicised as sententiae in the satires of Shakespeare’s contemporary John Marston were duly reproduced in England’s Parnassus.

The meaning of the word ‘quotation’ also began to change around 1600. In earlier usage it usually referred to what now would be called a ‘citation’ – a page reference, or chapter and verse. A ‘quotation’ then came to be the text identified by such a reference. That no doubt helped to build the concept of accurate citation into the emerging concept of a ‘quotation’, since the same word meant both a set of words taken from an earlier source and the means of locating those words. By the early 17th century people began to accuse each other of ‘misquotation’, by which they meant the misrepresentation of what was said in an earlier text. This was common in religious polemics, which often accuse their adversaries of the twin crimes of false quotation and theological error. A letter to a friend, touching Dr Jeremy Taylor’s Disswasive from Popery. Discovering above an hundred and fifty false, or wretched quotations, in it of 1665 is a representative title from an age in which misquoting was closely associated with error or heresy. Modern books of quotations are so zealous in hunting down phrases to their first appearance and quoting them accurately because they’re mainly used to freshen up a dim memory of something Winston Churchill (or was it Benjamin Franklin?) might have once said. But that practice is also a long-term consequence of the history of the word ‘quotation’ and its weaponisation in religious polemics of the 17th century.

Works calling themselves ‘dictionaries’ of quotations began to appear in England in the late 18th century. These tended to be targeted at people who felt they lacked some crucial bit of cultural worth. Samuel Davenport’s Miscellaneous selection of religious and moral quotations, in prose and verse appeared in 1793, aiming to ‘harmonise the passions, to increase our sensibility, and through the medium of taste to lead the mind to habits of piety and virtue’. It was published in Derby, and was designed to bring the kind of culture considered metropolitan to a non-metropolitan readership. A similar didactic aim was explicit four years later in the first English book to describe itself as a Dictionary of Quotations, by David Evans Macdonnel. This aimed ‘to be useful’ for those who were only acquainted with their ‘mother tongue’. Most of Macdonnel’s quotations are in Latin, which he translates and occasionally provides with uninspiring moral glosses. Of Virgil’s ‘Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris’ (‘It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in grief’), Macdonnel solemnly declares: ‘This maxim is true only in a certain degree. It may be admitted, however, that man never suffers so much, as when he suffers alone.’

Macdonnel’s commercial success (the Dictionary remained in print in England and America for more than half a century) led to the publication of Isabella Rushton Preston’s Handbook of Familiar Quotations from English Authors in 1853. Preston’s preface indicates quite how strange the phrase ‘familiar quotations’ actually is. She says that her book was originally designed for the use of her family, so was ‘familiar’ in that sense, but ‘when the Compiler found how many well-read persons were unable to name the author of even the most familiar passage’, she felt the need to provide a volume of these ‘familiar quotations’. Quotations are ‘familiar’ in that strange and slightly coercive sense of being ‘stuff that well-informed or with-it people, or members of my family, should know, but which you too could look as though you know if you read this book’. Preston’s collection was shamelessly stolen in 1855 without acknowledgment by John Bartlett for what became known as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations – which, if there were any justice in the world, should be known as Isabella Preston’s Familiar Quotations. ‘Bartlett’ in its later editions acknowledged that ‘what is familiar to one class of readers may be quite new to another,’ and in editions from 1863 stamped the aim of identifying sources onto its title page, promising ‘to trace to their source passages and phrases in common use’. The continuing marketability of Bartlett eventually prompted the staid, donnish, Anglocentric, and it must be said pretty darn dull, Oxford Dictionary of Quotations to appear in 1941.

Throughout this period the concept of the ‘quotation’ remained a moving target. Was it a remark that was quoted, and which had become part of a common store of ‘familiar’ knowledge? Was it a phrase that sounded ‘quotable’ because it presented ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’ (to quote Alexander Pope)? Or was it, perish the thought, a ‘quotation’ for the simple reason that it had appeared in earlier books of quotations, and so could be ripped off by buccaneers like Bartlett?

The preface to the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary in 1979 is a bizarre contribution to this cultural history. Its editors complained that those who compiled the first edition ‘had mostly been to Oxford or Cambridge and before that to schools where learning poetry (and even prose) by heart for repetition was regular’. The new edition was supposedly purged of these antique relics, but the exclusion from it of proverbs, songs, nursery rhymes, advertising copy, as well as lines from films and similar ephemera, produced a collection of stodgy canonicity just at the point when the concept of a literary canon was under loud and persistent attack. A skim through the running titles to the 1979 edition says it all: Browning Bunyan Burke Burns Butler Byron … and seventy pages of quotations from Shakespeare – though not, of course, any of the scurrilous apocryphal stuff like Manningham’s story about his sexual conquests. Later editions of the Oxford Dictionary belatedly got with the programme. They began to include quotations not just from the English literary greats and the Bible (Isabella Preston’s Familiar Quotations, and hence Bartlett, had begun with ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’) but also slender samples from the major texts of other religions, as well as some popular kinds of saying that might be ‘unfamiliar’, to dons at least. The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary, from 2014, includes four quotations from Monty Python – though I ask you, what have the Pythons ever done for us?

The original Yale Book of Quotations (2006), on which this new edition is closely based, was always a spunkier affair than the Oxford Dictionary. It had the North American bias implied by its title. It larged up Abraham Lincoln (69 quotations as against 16 in the 1979 Oxford), and was full of the kinds of remark that journalists might want to quote, then Google, and then guiltily think they ought to check in one of those old-fashioned book things. It’s also full of quotations from other books of quotations, since books of quotations, like monsters of the deep, must perforce prey on each other (as Albany in King Lear didn’t quite say – though for some reason what he did say, ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep,’ has from Isabella Preston onwards not been deemed to be a ‘familiar quotation’, despite being quotable and true and far from unfamiliar). Feed on one another these books certainly do, and in a predatory spirit of mutual correction. So both the Oxford Dictionary and the Yale Book only include one quotation from Spike Milligan, which is not the superb inscription on his tombstone, ‘Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite’ (‘I told you I was ill’), but the tame ‘Money couldn’t buy friends, but you got a better class of enemy.’ Here the Yale Book shows its extreme tenacity in pursuit of sources, tracing the gag back to a Charleroi Mail of 1953, and thus denuding poor old Spike of his one moment in the sun, and incidentally making the Oxford Dictionary seem a little naive for attributing it to Milligan’s Puckoon of 1963. In a similar vein both the Yale and the 2014 Oxford Dictionary record that Captain Kirk never actually said ‘Beam me up, Scotty,’ though only the Yale Book records that the misquotation (he preferred ‘Beam us up, Mr Scott’) first appeared in the Aeronautical Journal in 1975.

Sadly, neither volume finds room for Kirk’s other catchphrase, ‘Set phasers to stun,’ presumably because such a kindly articulation of American intergalactic colonialism doesn’t suit the spirit of our age. Mind you, I also miss the less eirenic command of ‘ALL WEAPONS!’ from Queen’s theme song for Flash Gordon (1980), which used to be a ‘familiar’ quotation in the Burrow family whenever my sons launched themselves at each other or their parents. Poor Freddie Mercury only warrants the quotation of ‘Nothing really matters’ from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, which hardly makes it sound as though he mattered as much as he did. George Lucas tots up eighteen quotations in the New Yale Book, including such universal truths as Yoda’s ‘When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not’ and Princess Amidala’s ‘This is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.’ The 2014 Oxford Dictionary limits itself to two quotations from Star Wars, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ and ‘Man your ships, and may the force be with you,’ suggesting that the unignorable and the snorable remain at the centre of Oxford taste.

While most of the 140 advertising slogans in the Yale Book (including ‘It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken’ and the glorious ‘With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good’) testify to the relentless inanity of the world, there are touches of genius here, too – in the Taco Bell slogan ‘Think outside the bun,’ for instance. There are also instances of the cosmically mendacious, such as the Fox News slogan ‘Fair and balanced’ – though I suppose the symmetrical blonde hairdos of the presenters might accurately be described as both fair and balanced. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘I have long thought that if you knew a column of advertisements by heart, you could achieve unexpected felicities with them. You can get a happy quotation anywhere if you have the eye.’ But the reverse is also true: quotations are a great source of potential ads. It’s surely time that McDonald’s gave up on the cheesy ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and adopted instead Abbie Hoffman’s statement (though it appears to originate in Aardvark magazine) that ‘Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.’

What are​ the ‘scores on the doors’ (Larry Grayson’s catchphrase from The Generation Game, 1978; scandalously omitted from both the Yale and Oxford collections, and often wrongly attributed to Bruce Forsyth) for individual contributors, and what do they tell us about what’s now thought of as a ‘quotation’? Might they even cast light on the cultural biases of the Yale Book?

The scores reveal implied value judgments aplenty. Don’t buy shares in Tennyson. The 339 quotations in the 1979 Oxford Book were slimmed to 195 in the 2014 edition, but the Yale Book sends them all into the valley of death, from which they emerge as we few, we happy few of 46, five of which are veterans from ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Milton is also headed the same way as bitcoin: 324 in Oxford 1979, 202 in Oxford 2014 and 53 in the New Yale. The Fab Four are pared down to the Fab Two and a Half, as George Harrison merits only one quotation (one more than he gets in the 2014 Oxford), a whingy line from ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, while Lennon and McCartney score 26, including some which seem barely to be quotations at all, such as ‘“Helter Skelter.” Title of song, (1968)’. Poor old Ringo gets the big zero, but he’s probably happy enough sipping cocktails in his octopus’s garden in the shade. And while the old white rockers are well represented here (Bob Dylan 27, Neil Young 6, Bruce Springsteen 7), there is nothing from Rihanna, and only one line from Jay-Z (‘I’m not afraid of dying/I’m afraid of not trying’). Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin get one quotation each, which shows way too little R-E-S-P-E-C-T towards the cultural influence of those great Black musicians. But as Mark Twain said, ‘when angry, count a hundred; when very angry, swear,’ though the Yale Book cites this maxim in its deflated alternative form (‘when angry, count four’).

I wish a similar deflationary pressure had been put on the number of quotations from Great American Dunderheads. Does the world really need 27 quotations from George W. Bush, when the entire man is summed up in the single line ‘I’m the master of low expectations’? Or twenty from Ronald Reagan, when his dirty little Dirty Harry rip-off says it all: ‘I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day.’ The original Yale Book (2006) included only one quotation from Donald Trump (‘Deals are my artform’). The New Yale includes 29 of his unpolished turds, including ‘I am not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!’ To accommodate the Donald’s gastric effusions (‘I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me’), Lionel Tiger (who’s supposed to have invented the phrase ‘male bonding’) is ousted from the second edition, as is Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.

One scoreline in the Yale Book is the most revealing of all: Plato 11, Mark Twain 154. The equivalent figures in the 2014 Oxford Dictionary are Plato 18, Twain 34. Twain spoke and wrote to be quoted, as did epigones of his such as H.L. Mencken, whose Little Book in C Major scores 13 in the Yale Book and ‘nul points’ (Eurovision, passim, but not regarded in either Yale or Oxford as a ‘quotation’) in the 1979 Oxford Dictionary, while the 2014 Oxford, with one eye no doubt on the Yale Book’s market share and another eye anxiously turned against its own Anglocentric leanings, increases his tally to 7. With a full-time aphorism-maker such as Mencken it’s hard to see why one sentence rather than another should be regarded as a ‘quotation’. ‘Democracy is also a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses’ is not regarded as a ‘quotation’ familiar enough to get into the dictionaries, while ‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard’ apparently is, on both sides of the Atlantic. Why? Both display the audible determination to ‘Snap! Crackle! and Pop!’ (Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, 1933) that marks and mars the slightly soggy wisecracker, but in this case the unquoted sentence is marginally crisper, though (maybe because it doesn’t figure in books of quotations) it Googles only in the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. As that firecracker of a wisecracker Dorothy Parker (49 quotations in the Yale v. a mingy 16 in the 2014 Oxford) said, ‘There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.’

The convergence of philosophy with the aphorism in the later 19th century had a permanent effect on what came to be considered a ‘quotation’ in the 20th and after, and the Yale Book bears the scars. There was nothing new about philosophers who uttered memorable maxims, of course: Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and La Rochefoucauld and Pascal (‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed’) all cultivated a style which encouraged a belief in the necessary convergence of pith and wisdom. But Nietzsche (29 quotations in the Yale v. 15 in the 2014 Oxford) and Oscar Wilde (123 in the Yale v. 61 in the 2014 Oxford) influenced the way people who wanted to be seen to sparkle spoke and wrote. They also influenced what collectors of quotations regarded as the criteria of quotability. Wilde, born a year before the first edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, seems relentlessly Bartlett-bound in his Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young of 1894 (‘Only the shallow know themselves’; ‘Time is the waste of money’, and on and on and on). The problem with Wilde is not just that he and every character he created always sound like they’re quoting Oscar Wilde, but that after him quotations that didn’t sound at least a little bit like Oscar Wilde were unlikely to be quoted, because they didn’t sound like quotations.

The Yale Book is more in hock to this tradition than the Oxford Dictionary, but they’re both guilty of trying to make unlikely authors aspire to the condition of Wildeness. So the very un-Wilde Mrs Gaskell is quoted in both the Oxford and Yale Books as having said in Cranford: ‘A man … is so in the way in the house.’ What Mrs Gaskell actually wrote was: ‘For kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. “A man,” as one of them observed to me once, “is so in the way in the house!”’ The ghost of Oscar’s blue pencil runs through the bulk of those words in order to make them ‘quotable’. The most bizarre aspect of the ‘quotation’ as we now understand it is that words uttered by King Lear when he’s mad are ascribed to Shakespeare, and that words attributed with some irony to a character in a novel can be ascribed to ‘Mrs Gaskell’.

Do quotations inform the mind, improve the morals, develop the style, provide us with an instant dose of culture, remind us of that which is already ‘familiar’, and whatever else we’ve been told they do? ‘Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style,’ Matthew Arnold said – or so he was quoted as saying in G.W.E. Russell’s Collections and Recollections (1898). Maybe. But perhaps Arnold’s crisp little maxim is only true if you equate style with quotability. The quotation has evolved in the post-Wilde universe to be the enemy of the dull and sensible statement of truth to the right of it and of the half-formed provisional thought to the left of it. That makes it a potential tyrant, which seeks out and destroys the idea that crawls so slowly and reluctantly into the world that its own author may not be quite aware of it yet. But such half-formed creatures, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born (as Yeats didn’t quite say), are probably the kinds of utterance that are most likely to change the world in the longer term. People who uncertainly grope after truth often come closer to touching it than those who attempt to shrink and bottle it. You can quote me on that.

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Vol. 44 No. 21 · 3 November 2022

Colin Burrow writes that the earliest ancestors of the modern dictionary of quotations ‘emerged in academic and religious environments, and were conceived as both summations of and short cuts to learning’ (LRB, 8 September). The earliest work he cites is Thomas of Ireland’s Manipulus florum (‘Handful of Flowers’), printed in Paris in 1306. I would suggest an earlier volume, vastly more impressive and influential.

Around 1140, a rather shadowy Italian cleric named Gratian produced a Concordia discordantium canonum (‘Harmony of Discordant Canons’), known as the Decretum Gratiani, a massive anthology of key passages from the Bible, the Church Fathers, Church Council rulings and papal bulls and letters. Gratian’s compendium arranged these extracts in an impressively systematic framework, facilitating their use by teachers and preachers whose busy schedules precluded immersion in the sources. About a hundred years later, the Decretum was supplemented by the Decretals of Gregory IX, largely the work of Raymond of Peñafort and William of Rennes. Together, these constitute the classics of Catholic canon law.

Those unfamiliar with Gratian’s Decretum and its supplement are likely to suppose that these ‘dictionaries of quotations’ were of interest only to canon lawyers and other churchmen. But the range of questions they covered included issues central to secular life. For instance, my recent work on the mid-16th-century Spanish debate over the justice of the New World conquests has impressed on me the vital importance of the 23rd section of the second book of the Decretum, on just (and unjust) war.

David Lupher
Tacoma, Washington

Vol. 44 No. 22 · 17 November 2022

Whether or not the Decretum traditionally ascribed to Gratian (and recently shown to be the work of at least two compilers) qualifies as a ‘dictionary of quotations’, as David Lupher suggests, it was not the first compilation of its type (Letters, 3 November). Though undoubtedly more sophisticated in construction, it shared much of its quoted material with earlier works such as Anselm of Lucca’s Collection in Thirteen Books of around 1080 and the slightly later anonymous Panormia (previously ascribed to Ivo of Chartres). There was an even longer tradition of gathering extracted legal sources in Roman law, extending as far back as the Codex Theodosianus (438) and the even earlier collections of the 290s. In both Roman and canon law collections, however, there can be found small sections of single sentence extracts called rules of law, which can be more plausibly linked to later dictionaries of quotations.

Andrew Lewis
Camelford, Cornwall

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