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The Words of Others

The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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    The Words of Others
    Book Description:

    In this lively gambol through the history of quotations and quotation books, Gary Saul Morson traces our enduring fascination with the words of others. Ranging from the remote past to the present, he explores the formation, development, and significance of quotations, while exploring the "verbal museums" in which they have been collected and displayed--commonplace books, treasuries, and anthologies. In his trademark clear, witty, and provocative style, Morson invites readers to share his delight in the shortest literary genre.

    The author defines what makes a quote quotable, as well as the (unexpected) differences between quotation and misquotation. He describes how quotations form, transform, and may eventually become idioms. How much of language itself is the residue of former quotations? Weaving in hundreds of intriguing quotations, common and unusual, Morson explores how the words of others constitute essential elements in the formation of a culture and of the self within that culture. In so doing, he provides a demonstration of that very process, captured in the pages of this extraordinary new book.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17174-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue Cleopatra’s Nose
    (pp. 1-8)

    Picture commencement at a major Midwestern university. The guest speaker, a well-known legislator, summons the students to live not for themselves but for society. In the tradition of such addresses, he asks the graduates “not to heap up wealth, nor take pride only in your personal achievements, nor remain content to care for a family. Reach out to the world around you and resolve to leave it a better place than you found it. A wise man once said that ‘no man is ever an island,’ and truer words were never spoken. You are most yourself when attending to someone...

  5. Introduction Verbal Gems and Treasuries
    (pp. 9-20)

    W. H. Auden describedpoetryas “memorable speech,” a phrase that could elegantly and quotably definequotationas well.¹ Quotations are the lines that people remember—or are expected to remember. The various genres of quotation—wise sayings, aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, witticisms, heroic pronouncements, adages, and many more—constitute the shortest literary forms. Their concision not only makes them easy to memorize but also often confers considerable aesthetic power. Pithy or succinct sayings stick with us when texts of scholarly treatises have been long forgotten.

    We sometimes think of quotations as extracts from larger texts, but some quotations originated complete...

  6. PART I The Market for Quotations

    • I What Is an Anthology?
      (pp. 23-36) presently lists for sale several thousand books of quotations, not including those out of print or in other languages. Hundreds deal with the “wit and wisdom” of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and many other cultural figures. We may peruse Indian Wisdom, Great Thoughts of China, or a Treasury of Yiddish Quotations. Some collections console, others inspire; they may focus on the literary, the popular, or anywhere in between. Hackneyed profundity competes with platitudinous sarcasm. Many select from the Bible.

      Various professions and fields have their competing anthologies of wisdom, insights, or rules of thumb. Fine...

    • II Quotationality and Former Quotations
      (pp. 37-68)

      Sometimes we do not cite specific words but rather conjure theauraof a quotation. In such cases, an utterance displays what might be called “quotationality” without actually quoting anything specific. Quotationality comes in degrees.

      Quotationality confers upon phrases a degree of otherness. Creating a vague feeling that something is being cited, such phrases appear in stories ranging from everyday anecdotes to great novels. They also figure prominently in thought and in inner speech, while playing an important role in the life of language itself. A language’s partial assimilation of foreign words and phrases, its development of clichés and idioms,...

  7. PART II The Nature of Quotations

    • III What Is a Quotation?
      (pp. 71-91)

      What is a quotation? And how does it differ from an aphorism, a proverb, or a saying? What defines each short form and its relation to the others?

      From Erasmus to the present, anthologizers have tried to draw lines on the sea, only to recognize that no firm boundaries are to be had. They lament in unison, or quote each other quoting each other, that consistent adherence to any proposed criteria is impossible. Interesting material always lies just beyond any boundary, and, once that material is accepted, the new boundary invites the same process of expansion. Consider “aphorisms.” Used in...

    • IV Making a Quotation
      (pp. 92-113)

      A line interpreted as an independent work differs fundamentally from the same line interpreted as a part of some larger work. This apparently simple distinction between a quotation and an extract turns out to have important consequences.

      Because a quotation differs from an extract, the version that appears in anthologies is in fact the accurate version of the quotation, even if it differs from its original source, as it often does. The original source defines the accuracy of the extract, the words a biographer would cite as actually said or written at a specified historical moment. But the anthology, or...

    • V What Is a Misquotation?
      (pp. 114-122)

      Recent quotation anthologies have advanced claims for unprecedented accuracy. The Internet has supposedly allowed for previously impossible research to establish correct wording. Unfortunately, advanced technology cannot compensate for muddled thinking.

      Numerous recent books collect familiarmisquotations. They offer buyers two pleasures at once, rereading favorite sayings and seeing them exposed as frauds. Choosing such titles asThey Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes and Misleading Attributions(Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George),What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations(Elizabeth Knowles), andNice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations(Ralph Keyes),...

    • VI More Than Words Alone
      (pp. 123-140)

      Anthologizers wonder: if a famous statement turns out to have a prior source, then who is the author of the quotation? Under whose name should the anthologizer list it?

      Quotographers (to use the current term) often insist that attribution to the more famous, but not earliest, speaker is erroneous, and their books relentlessly expose such “misattributions.” Anthologizers often demonstrate uneasiness whichever choice they make. Their criteria require them to credit the earliest user, but the results seem wrong.

      “Ask not what your country can do for you”: Should we really attribute these words not to John F. Kennedy but to...

    • VII Mis-misquotations
      (pp. 141-154)

      A growing canon of misquotations reappears in numerous volumes. Often enough, however, it is the accusation of error that is itself erroneous. These supposed mis-quotations are better calledmis-misquotations.

      As we have seen, “blood, sweat, and tears” is a mis-misquotation. By now, this phrase, like many others, lives a double life, as both a quotation and a mistaken example of a misquotation.

      The same mis-misquotations are flagged not only in Keyes’sNice Guys Finish Seventh, Boller and George’sThey Never Said It, and Knowles’sWhat They Didn’t Say, but also in special entries of recent general quotation anthologies. They have...

    • VIII How and Where Quotations Live
      (pp. 155-170)

      We have already seen that quotations belong to the second speaker, who may or may not coincide with the historical first speaker of the extract. Still more strangely, the second speaker can change. As hermit crabs find new homes, so what we might call “hermit quotations” find new authors.

      Once we understand that the ascription of an author may be an intrinsic part of a quotation, the behavior of hermit quotations makes sense. Certain genres of quotation demand a specifickindof author, who is recognizable as such. When one such author ceases to be known, another readily takes his...

  8. PART III Quotations of Occasion

    • IX Famous Last Words
      (pp. 173-197)

      “Famous Last Words” evoke strong interest. After all, no one has experienced the end and everyone must do so. When the final moments arrive, how will we feel and what will we say?

      Many other reasons insure interest in last words. They provide closure to biographies. Many locations of dying—the gallows, the stake, the guillotine, the battlefield, the deathbed with disciples or relatives as witnesses—fascinate for their own reasons. Great farewells often belong to great people, whose deaths interest us because their lives interest us. Countless volumes collect last words from antiquity to the present. No matter how many...

    • X Epitaphs
      (pp. 198-218)

      Like final utterances, epitaphs constitute a genre of occasion. No less than their words, their physical location on a tombstone and the moment of their carving for a memorial are intrinsic to their meaning.

      No one either expects epitaphs to report unbiased facts or demands verification of their praise. Dr. Johnson’s wellknown observation that in lapidary inscriptions a man is not under oath points to the genre’s literariness. Its conventions allow considerable latitude.

      Precisely because familiar conventions govern the form, epitaphs have invited parodies using a similar diction to confer abuse. These parodic epitaphs—or anti-epitaphs, as we might call...

  9. PART IV Literary Composition and Decomposition

    • XI The Anthology as Literature
      (pp. 221-256)

      When is an anthology of quotations more than an anthology of quotations? Can a treasury become a jewel in its own right?

      Collections of quotations have fascinated great writers. Several have hit upon the idea of transforming an anthology into a literary work. After all, literature contains many kinds of composite creations that make a whole from a collection of discrete parts.

      Works like theDecameronand theCanterbury Talesconsist of numerous complete stories. TheArabian Nightsis a kind of narrative encyclopedia, a story about stories about stories. Sonneteers have written “sequences” and lyric poets “cycles,” in which...

    • XII Whole and Part
      (pp. 257-280)

      When we speak of “literature,” we usually think first of great epics, dramas, and novels, not proverbs, witticisms, and sayings. No survey of literature would be complete without considering works like theAeneid, Hamlet,andAnna Karenina, but almost no one includes the ripostes of Samuel Johnson or the aphorisms of Pascal. Why should that be so?

      From antiquity to the present, and from the Delphic oracle to theAnalectsof Confucius, numerous cultures have placed the shortest works, especially wise sayings, at the center of their canon. The biblical book of Proverbs begins by summoning us “to receive the...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 281-284)

    We live by the words of others.

    When he heard quotation censured as pedantry, Dr. Johnson replied: “No, it is a good thing; there is community of mind in it. Classical quotation is theparoleof literary men all over the world” (WoW, 297). Mind andparole:quotation shapes thought and its instrument.

    For Johnson, to know a civilization is to know its quotations. To write and speak one’s language well, one needs to be familiar with important models of its use. In Johnson’s view, language is in part made by important things said in it. Just as the actions...

  11. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 285-288)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 289-306)
  13. Index
    (pp. 307-340)