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Seventy years young

Borrowed words

We all find at times that we reach for the words of others to express just what we want to say. Gleaming red berries through the fog of a September morning may remind the more literary of John Keats’s ‘season of mists, and mellow fruitfulness’. The Indian summer of 2011, on the other hand, inspired the creator of a newspaper caption to rework a famous line from Porgy and Bess, ‘Autumn time, and the living is easy…’

Infinite riches

‘Misquotations’ once coined can become part of the language. They come in many guises. Like Shaken, not stirred as associated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond, they can represent summaries of an original, where an incorrect (but often pithier) version has become lodged in the public mind. Some famous ‘sayings’ are completely apocryphal. Elementary, my dear Watson summarizes for us the relationship between the brilliant detective and his loyal but less intellectual friend, but was never actually penned by Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes. Crisis? What crisis? as attributed to James Callaghan was originally a headline in the Sun. Follow the money, supposedly the advice of ‘Deep Throat’ to the investigative journalists pursuing the Watergate story, was actually the creation of the screenwriter for the film All the President’s Men. As we unpack the stories behind some of our best-established misquotations, we may discover what the sixteenth-century dramatist Christopher Marlowe called ‘infinite riches in a little room’.

Made by the people

The literary critic Hesketh Pearson said that ‘Misquotations are made by the people’, and quotations in the language take on a life of their own. Alterations in wording, and apparent misattributions, are often more than mistakes, and much more interesting. For seventy years, Oxford has been mining this rich seam of language change.

Seventy years young

First published in 1941, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has remade itself for each generation of readers, with every decade bringing a further layer of rich material. In 1941 it spoke to a classically-educated, book-oriented readership. Many of the best-known sayings of today were still unsaid: Winston Churchill (not yet Prime Minister), with only one quotation, was outstripped by his father Lord Randolph Churchill with six. Today our book serves the needs of a diverse and computer-literate generation. Yet in essence it is the same book: an unrivalled collection, based on usage, of the many quotations that enrich our language. Such longevity is a cause for celebration: as the young jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr wrote to Julia Ward Howe on her seventieth birthday, ‘It is better to be seventy years young than forty years old!’

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