Quotations for every occasion
One of the most interesting aspects of working with quotations is seeing how words from one occasion are applicable to another. The recent controversy over the sale of Forestry Commission land brought to mind the words of the poet William Blake, writing over 200 years ago: ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way’. The unusually cold weather in December revived memories of British Rail and ‘the wrong sort of snow’, not in fact the words of a BR representative, but a leader in the Evening Standard. This time we were exhorted to ‘Keep calm and carry on’, following the advice of a poster designed by the Ministry of Information in 1939 but never used in World War II, and only accidentally re-discovered in the early 21st century. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of a good quotation is that while it may have arisen from a particular event, it expresses an idea of value to later generations.
Misspoken misstatements and other blunders
Politicians, of course, have a strong interest in the value of words, but while some, such as Winston Churchill, have a gift for a memorable turn of phrase, others mistake quantity for quality. The unrest in North Africa led Colonel Gaddafi to make more of his lengthy speeches, ignoring the advice of Abu Bakr, the first Islamic caliph: ‘Give brief orders; speeches that are too long are likely to be forgotten’. Even if you keep it short you can run into trouble – Hillary Clinton had to admit that ‘If I misspoke that was just a misstatement’.
Mistakes and errors are the common currency of political debate, and the recent economic recession has produced some entertaining and revealing slips of the tongue, most notably Gordon Brown’s ‘We not only saved the world…Er, saved the banks’. But there are also opportunities for politicians in such a situation. As Rahm Emanuel, Mayor-elect of Chicago, put it: ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste’. The crisis he had in mind – the potential collapse of the banking system – was aptly summed up by Thomas Jefferson two hundred years earlier ‘Banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies’.
Inventing the future
While many old quotations take on a new lease of life as history repeats itself, some people gain fame by their glimpses into the future: in 1938 H. G. Wells wrote on ‘The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia’, saying that ‘The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual’. The Internet is taking us closer to that point, while we have long since achieved the vision of the inventor Thomas Edison in 1895: ‘The horseless vehicle is the coming wonder’. Only forty years ago, the computer scientist Alan Kay offered a solution ‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’.
‘Just a small family affair…’
Who knows whether Prince William’s joke, according to lipreaders, that his recent wedding was supposed to be ‘just a small family affair’ will become a timeless classic? If it does, it won’t be the first such quote to stem from a royal wedding. Over the course of history, some royal brides have been more reluctant than others. When it was suggested that she should marry Henry VIII, Christina of Denmark is reputed to have said ‘If I had two heads, I would happily place one at the disposal of the King of England’. On the other hand, some royal bridegrooms too have been less than eager. On first seeing Caroline of Brunswick the future George IV said ‘Harris, I am not well; pray get me a glass of brandy’.
Some sentiments are so universal that they remain popular throughout the ages. Many still quote Confucius ‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart’, Gandhi ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world’, or Helen Keller ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing’. It remains to be seen which of today’s sound bites and blunders will stand the test of time and make their way into collections of memorable quotations…