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When I left home at 18 to attend college, my older brother gave me a list of four useful quotations he received when he went to college. He got them from Rocco Caponigri, a family friend, who got them from his father when he went to college. They were:
When I remembered to heed them, they served me well. Incanted like a magic spell, quotation number one periodically spirited me away from among fellow thirsty smartasses and deposited me in the library or in bed. Numbers two and three helped me discover a secret of undergraduate life: if you do four hours of schoolwork every Monday morning and Friday afternoon, the week opens up like a flower. And, while disgracing oneself was no big deal to anyone who had been an adolescent in the late 1970s, the prospective shame of screwing up badly enough to disgrace my family proved to be a deterrent powerful enough to keep me more or less in line on the way to graduation.
None of my four guiding quotations has made it over the high double bar of fame and artfulness into the massive new Yale Book of Quotations, to be published by the Yale University Press in October. But I’m not holding their absence against Fred Shapiro, the Yale law librarian who edited it. Rather, I am already surveying my advance copy to see if I should replace any of my four quotations, or add a fifth, when I pass them on to my daughters at just about this time of year in 2019 and 2021. There are more than 12,000 to choose among, each with its payload of accrued wisdom compressed into a few well-chosen words.
“Quotations are the backbone of much of literature, and of the transmission of art and thought more generally,” writes Shapiro in his Introduction, pitching it strong. Quotations also provide “a communal bond uniting us with past culture, and with other lovers of words and ideas in our own time.” They are the concentrated essence of culture, in both the small-c anthropological sense of a way of life and in the capital-C sense exemplified by Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “the best that is known and thought in the world.” A quotation’s lasting aura comes not only from the quality of its word-music and the overlapping echoes raised by repetition of it over the years, but also from the sheer wriggling quantity of human living, rueful or joyful or otherwise, packed into it. That’s as true, or even more true, of an unattributed saying—“Put up or shut up,” for instance—as it is of a famous attributable line like Anatole France’s “The majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
So, okay, quotations of all sorts are important. But, you are no doubt thinking, aren’t there already books of quotations out there? Do we need another? Fred Shapiro’s answer is Yes, and yes. There are people who pick up Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and think Let’s see if Shakespeare or Byron had anything catchy to say about lust that I can use in my speech to the regional sales representatives. Then there’s Shapiro, who picks up Bartlett's and thinks There’s room for improvement here (although he’s too diplomatic to come out and say as much, unless provoked). When Shapiro was a boy, growing up in New Hyde Park, Long Island, his father brought home a copy of Bartlett's in one of his regular purchases-in-bulk from the Strand, a used-book store in Manhattan. Young Fred, whose compilatory tendencies were already manifesting themselves in an obsession with baseball statistics, read it with pleasure, but maturity has brought disillusionment. “A wonderful anthology and a compulsive read,” he told me when I visited him in his office at the Lillian Goldman Law Library, “but I wasn’t aware of its limitations.”
While we talked, Shapiro’s facial expression registered the internal ebb and flow of two feelings: the serene satisfaction he finds in a well-turned, much-repeated, properly researched phrase, and his disapproval of those who allow the inertia of sloth or convention to lead them into quotational error. Disapproval gained the upper hand as, after some goading from me, Shapiro enumerated the limitations of Bartlett's: British-centered to a fault, largely deaf to modern and popular voices, and, like other standard quotations books, indifferently researched and hit-and-miss in its selections. Choosing his words with care, he said, “Bartlett's emphasizes the fine art more than the science of quotations compilation. Completeness is not a goal that has come easily to quotations dictionaries.” He ticked off notable omissions with mounting horror. “They leave out Reagan on the Berlin Wall, Lou Gehrig’s farewell, Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer.”
He was so plainly aghast that I felt obliged to shake my head in sympathy—and, actually, I saw his point. Instead of reproducing page upon page of dust-furred bons mots from Pope or Tennyson, why not replace some of the least essential entries with more popular quotations which all sorts of people have actually used in our time as equipment for living? For example, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"; “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth"; and “Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed, the courage to change that which can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.” (If, judging by a combined standard of poetic merit, concise delivery of useful meaning, and active circulation in the culture, you had to choose between the modern proverb “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” and Tennyson’s “Ah, Christ, that it were possible / For one short hour to see / The souls we loved, that they might tell us / What and where they be,” which would you include? Bear in mind that Tennyson still rates 46 entries in the Yale Book of Quotations, even though this lesser effort of his doesn’t make the cut.)
Shapiro took six years to compile the book—adjudicating among competing quotations' claims to importance and beauty, tracing authorship when there was an author to credit and the earliest recorded use when there wasn’t, and coordinating the efforts of research assistants and a far-flung community of fellow word-sleuths known as the Stumpers Network. The final product distinguishes itself in a number of ways from the competition, which includes not just Bartlett's but also the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and other printed and online sources that tend to borrow wholesale from one another and share similar limitations as reference works.
Shapiro has consciously assembled what he calls a “modern canon” of quotables—Mark Twain (“perhaps the Shakespeare of modern quotations”), Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Yogi Berra, Mae West—who take their places alongside Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and the other usual suspects. With special sections on proverbs and modern proverbs, sayings, radio and television catchphrases, film lines, folk and anonymous songs, and political and advertising slogans, his book takes the popular, the commercial, and the contemporary as seriously as it takes the literary high culture of bygone centuries. And the citational apparatus, bolstered by far-reaching use of database search technology, is much more robust than in other quotations books. Where Bartlett's will merely append a vague identifying label like “Remark,” Shapiro goes deep. Some of his annotations amount to mini-essays on origins and usage. For instance, the one that traces “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings” through the sports media to Ralph Carpenter, a publicist at Texas Tech in the 1970s, then further back from there to related Southern popular sayings that may have inspired Carpenter (“Church ain’t out 'til the fat lady sings”), provides a concise account of the flow of language and meaning through the strata of culture.
How does one go from being a kid who naïvely enjoys leafing through Bartlett's to being the self-appointed avenger who resolves to supersede it? “When I was in my early twenties,” Shapiro said, “I was on the tiddlywinks team at MIT, and wasn’t very good, but I became the town historian of tiddlywinks.” He smiled slightly, to acknowledge how pitch-perfectly dweeby that sounded. “At some point I found the Oxford English Dictionary, and tried to trace the word’s origins. The OED said 1894. By then I was a law student at Harvard, a very indifferent one. I spent my time at Widener Library, which had a good collection of books on sports and games. I found a book with an article on tiddlywinks from 1890. Now, I had thought the OED was perfect. I didn’t understand. But I sent the new information to them, and they wrote back to say thank you.” He went on to find other sports and games references that were earlier than the earliest uses listed in the OED, then moved on to other subjects and other research problems, including quotations. He briefly tried lawyering, but found it intensely annoying and went to library school at Catholic University instead, graduating in 1983. In 1987 he came to Yale, where he is an associate librarian for collections and access and a lecturer in legal research at the Law School.
That’s his Clark Kent job, anyway. In his Quotations Research Superman role, as a defender of accuracy, rigor, and the rough-and-ready eloquence of American speech, he has revolutionized the study of quotations by bringing technological sophistication and exacting scholarly methods to a field in which “Remark” or “Speech” had previously served as an acceptable citation. Along the way, he invented the field of legal citology, the quantitative analysis of footnotes to determine which thinkers and ideas have greatest influence in the law, a practice that has recruited both fans and critics across the legal profession. He has also edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations and seven other books, and changed many of the OED’s word histories.
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED, described Shapiro to me as “an extremely active contributor” who has “been in the forefront of using databases for linguistic research for decades. He’s made many important discoveries.” Like what? “Well, there’s politically correct, and hopefully, and his work on motherfucking—he has changed the history of these words, and when you change the history of a word you change the way we write our history.” Politically correct, for instance, rings differently in the mind’s ear when you learn that in 1793, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson noted without irony that toasting the United States rather than the people of the United States was not p.c. And motherfucking isn’t quite the same anymore—and Deadwood seems smarter, too—when you learn that it first appears in print in court papers from Texas in the late nineteenth century. (In at least two appeals of murder convictions, the killer failed to persuade the court that the deceased, having used the m-word, had it coming to him.) Until Shapiro found it in Texas, the word was usually traced back no further than to literary sources in the Harlem Renaissance. But he’s not ready to declare victory yet. With habitual caution, he said, “We are clearly a few decades closer to the origins of the word, but how close we are in absolute terms is highly speculative.”
Shapiro tracked down those motherfuckers in Texas with an online search, using the Lexis and Westlaw databases. He has led his fellow investigators of language in the systematic and creative use of technology. “There are,” he said, “two kinds of Internet. One is the Internet that most of us use every day—Google searches that pull up websites that may or may not have veracity behind them. The Google Internet is not reliable, and when it comes to quotations, people are often drawn to colorful false explanations.” But there’s another Internet, “what you might call the JSTOR Internet.” JSTOR, ProQuest, LexisNexis, Questia, Literature Online, the Times Digital Archive, and other such databases provide searchable, verifiable access to the giant swathes of print culture that have been electronically archived in recent years. “There’s an unbelievable range of historical texts on the web, actual facsimile images, and you can search fantastic amounts of texts. There’s been an explosion of these databases, which have revolutionized our procedures.” The OED, for instance, having been brought up to date in its methods by Shapiro and others, is “improving and often dramatically revising a significant percentage of their first-use datings. I was lucky enough to be doing my book at a time when these quotations are out there online, and we can use databases also to evaluate the popularity of quotes, not just first use.” Online search engines have allowed Shapiro to make completeness a more realistic objective. He set out to collect not just the most artful but also the most famous and frequently cited quotations in the English language, using database searches to track patterns of reuse that translate into a rough measure of a quotation’s importance.
Technological sophistication only goes so far, however. He had to balance importance as a criterion for selection with pithiness and elegance, which still can only be measured with human faculties. Shapiro admits to having felt free to add “hundreds of quotations that deserved to be famous. Any compiler allows himself that, I think.” He gave plenty of space to two Mets heroes of his youth—Yogi Berra has 28 entries, Casey Stengel has 10—and squeezed in some zingers from lesser-known characters, like the poet John Hall Wheelock, who wrote: “‘A planet doesn’t explode of itself,’ said drily / The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air—/ ‘That they were able to do it is proof that highly / Intelligent beings must have existed there.’” Shapiro makes a point of being self-effacing, but if signs of his personality can be found in the book they may lurk between such lesser-known lines. For a former tiddlywinks benchwarmer turned toiler in the vineyards of wit, a connoisseur whose considerable expertise lies in appreciating and properly crediting the brilliance of others, adding someone else’s words to the lexicon constitutes a proud achievement.
What makes a quotation deserve to be famous? A quality of “incandescence” that Shapiro finds hard to pin down, so he quoted the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Shapiro is more likely than other compilers of quotations books to get that Potter Stewart feeling when he encounters a sterling instance of popular speech. He considers his book’s extensive selections of proverbs, catchprases, and sayings to be one of his principal achievements. These authorless quotations present a special challenge to researchers, of course, since “nobody really knows where they originated, so you try to find the earliest use you can, and the databases let you reach deep into the language to do that.” But their fascination has more to do with the way they bear meaning. “A pithy phrase that sticks in people’s minds can carry knowledge, accumulated experience, on a far deeper level and more accessibly than any other form of verbal communication. Proverbs can be used as clichés, of course, but they are also folk wisdom where the popular mind is expressing truths fundamental to human experience or psychology. They preserve valuable customs and attitudes, especially from rural origins, but you also have modern proverbs.”
Shapiro said, “People use proverbs to rescue themselves, to face a difficult world. ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles.’ ‘Different strokes for different folks.’” I had heard these phrases more times than I can count and never detected any special consequence in them, but as he recited them—giving each word its due emphasis, the same way he treats Fitzgerald’s prose—I began to appreciate how they organize and contain experience: a broken heart, a repaired life, hard-won perspective. Shapiro went off into an account of a change he has made in the credit for the earliest recorded utterance of “Different strokes for different folks,” a shift from Sly Stone to Muhammad Ali. The shift alters the date of first usage by only a few years, but it changes the resonance of the phrase for me, augmenting its gentle Sixties relativism with something harder and more instrumental, making it suddenly a first cousin of a profound boxing aphorism that Ali knew well: “Styles make fights” (which is not in the book, but should be).
The power of the demotic gives Shapiro’s book a special charge not shared by other such compilations. Now that I think about it, the same is true of the list of four quotations my brother gave me 24 years ago. Number four—“Disgrace your family and I’ll break your head”—gives life to the other three, serving as a kicker that fills them with signifying consequence. This—whap!—is why you must remember to choose your company well, use time wisely, and work hard; and, conversely, the other three quotations lend a certain gravitas to Rocco’s father’s threat. A similar mutually reinforcing two-way traffic animates Shapiro’s book. Applying his exacting, respectful attention to the everyday speech of the people as well as the notable speech of poets, philosophers, and presidents, he allows each to elevate the other.
He also inspired me to check up on Rocco’s father, who, I found, modernized both Washington (replacing “‘Tis” with “It is”) and Franklin (“Employ thy time well, if thou meanest to gain leisure”) and apparently misattributed quotation number three. Antiphanes, not Jefferson, usually gets credit for “Everything yields to diligence.” Rocco’s father either had it wrong by accident or preferred that the advice come from a Founding Father, not some Greek guy. Either way, I feel honor-bound to correct the attribution from this day forward when I pass it on. “Everybody on some level wants to get it right,” Shapiro told me, temporarily forgiving his fellow humans their trespasses against quotational precision and completeness, which caused his facial expression to relax for a moment into something like peace.
The quotation references on this page are excerpted from The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred Shapiro (Yale University Press).
Attributed in Wash. Post, 10 Mar. 1904. This famous line is apocryphal; the colonists would have thought of themselves as British. Revere may instead have said “The Regulars are coming out!”
Attributed in Foxhall A. Parker, The Battle of Mobile Bay (1878). Parker’s full quotation is “Damn the torpedoes! Jouett, full speed!” Later sources usually quote Farragut as saying “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” In fact, reports of the battle filed by the participants do not mention any version of “Damn the torpedoes!"; these words were probably never uttered.
Peter Gay wrote in the American Historical Review in 1961 (66:664-676): “After all, as Sigmund Freud once said, there are times when a man craves a cigar simply because he wants a good smoke.”
Attributed in Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, 17 Jan. 1894.
Although undoubtedly not the coinage of the seduction cliché “come up and see my etchings,” this is earlier than any other instance that has been discovered. (See Susannah Centlivre)
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