Borrowed words: editing the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
I have been Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for over 15 years, and the interest of the work is as keen as ever. The joy of ODQ is that its content (based firmly on what is being quoted) is unpredictable and uncontrollable: no-one, however cleverly they craft a current soundbite, can ensure that their words will last beyond the immediate flurry of news reports. Who for instance, in 1963, would have predicted that Mandy Rice-Davies’ riposte ‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ would 50 years later be established as part of the quotations canon?
A life of their own
Quotations are borrowed words: we reach for what someone else has said or written to express what we want to say. Once a quotation has hit the public consciousness it takes on a life of its own, and is as subject to language change as other words and phrases. Sometimes the meaning will be altered; at other times the wording itself may change. In 2013 a quotation from Jane Austen, ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading’, appeared on the prototype of the new £10 banknote. On the face of it the words appear unexceptionable, and indeed admirable—but as many indignant voices pointed out, this line from Pride and Prejudice actually comes from a quite insincere protestation of pleasure made by Miss Bingley. However, it is the nature of quotation that words can be separated from their context, and it seems likely that the episode will only have reinforced the place of the line in the common quotations stock.
‘New’ quotations often come from the past, typically highlighted by some event which makes them freshly relevant. When in 2013 Sam Mendes was awarded a BAFTA for the Bond film Skyfall, his speech of acceptance paid tribute to Ian Fleming. ‘I would like to thank the man who sat down at his typewriter 60 years ago and wrote: “He was a secret agent and still alive thanks to his exact attention to the detail of his profession.”’ We now have the relevant quotation from Casino Royale under Fleming, to add to the Dictionary’s other Bond-related items.
Sometimes there is more to learn about a well-established item. In 2013, coverage of the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King included background information about what is often now referred to as his ‘I have a dream’ speech. Coverage indicated that King had been inclined not to use the expression again in this speech, it having appeared in several others, in case it had become hackneyed. In the event, he used it in response to a prompt from the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson: ‘Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.’ We now have an entry for Jackson as well as King.
Who didn’t say what?
Our favourite assertions often come tacked on to a famous name—as Dorothy Parker once said of the propensity to attribute witty sayings to Oscar Wilde, ‘We all assume that Oscar said it.’ Other ‘names’ with the ability to attract apocryphal quotations have traditionally included Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill. In 2014, it is interesting to see another figure rising in this form of popular estimation. Our ‘Sayings’ section now includes two items, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’ and ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win’ which are widely misattributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Part of the interest of working on ODQ is establishing the status of such ‘famous words’. Albert Einstein is another frequently-cited name, and one new addition to the collection demonstrates how easy it is for confusion to develop. Look on the Internet for the terse advice ‘If you are out for truth, leave elegance to the tailor’, and you will find it widely ascribed to Einstein. In fact, the comment that ‘Matters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor’ was the view of ‘the brilliant theoretical physicist’ Ludwig Boltzmann, quoted by Einstein in the preface to his Relativity: The Special and General Theory (1916). However, in the public consciousness Boltzmann has been overtaken by the more famous scientist—a process materially assisted by Arthur Koestler in 1945, when he wrote ‘My comfort is what Einstein said…“If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”’ It is very satisfying as an editor to be able to set out the full picture for readers, with entries for Boltzmann and Koestler cross-referred from Einstein.
Many of such items turn out to be apocryphal (our Misquotations section now has two items popularly attributed to Cicero, but actually coming from a 1965 novel based on his life). But it doesn’t do to be too sceptical: sometimes things which might seem too good to be true are really genuine. With the help of Nicholas Cronk of the Voltaire Foundation, we have been able to establish that the popular version ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization’ really does summarize Voltaire’s own words: ‘It is a wonderful result of the progress of human culture, that at this day there come to us from Scotland rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening.’ And the injunction ‘If you think you can win, you can’, which might sound like a modern motivational construct, really was written by William Hazlitt (Table Talk, 1822).
Tracing the life of quotations in the language is one of the most enjoyable parts of the role of Editor. It is doubly pleasing when, with a judicious mixture of annotation and linked entries, we can share some of the fascinating stories with our readers.