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Book Review: The Yale Book of Quotations

The New Yale Book of Quotations
Courtesy Yale University Press

Many of us have heard the remark “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money,” and attribute it to Hemingway or F. S. Fitzgerald. But according to a handsome, new, updated and highly authenticated collection The New Yale Book of Quotations the person to whom the remark should be attributed is mid-century Irish literary critic Mary Colum.

Just so with the famous expression said to be Voltaire’s — “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." The originator of that line was Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Or take the declaration, “We shall overcome.” The first one to use it was not Pete Seeger but Lucille Simmons, a tobacco worker picketer in 1946. And how about that famous citation from George H.W. Bush: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Turns out it was the work of columnist and former assistant to Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan.

What these corrections have in common, as editor Fred Shapiro and critic Louis Menand in his forward point out, is that the original expressions were the work of women, little or lesser-known, sometimes referenced as “anonymous.” As Menand notes, “the bigger the name, the more likely the misattribution.” Factor in women, also, as the authors of many famous nursery rhymes and catchphrases, including “Black Lives Matter” and “E.T. Phone home.”

It was a different time, of course, when Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations came out in 1855 — it’s now in its 18th edition — so who knew or cared if the quotation biggies — Churchill, Lincoln, Twain, Shaw, Emerson, Orwell, Milton — hadn’t actually coined a particular phrase. They could have. And did coin many.

No, don’t throw away your Bartlett’s. It has history. But do attend to what Shapiro, contributor to the OED and associate director of collections and access at Yale Law Library and his incredible tech-savvy researchers have done. They have verified, corrected and included in this their second edition — the first was in 2006 — thousands upon thousands of well-known maxims, many not false attributions but misstatements that just evolve. For example, Casablanca’s “play it again, Sam” which in the 1942 movie is just “play it, Sam.” As the researchers show, the “pith” of many a quotation is that the original may have a different emotional impact. In the case of Casablanca, one might argue that the original, “play it, Sam,” is more forcefully sad.

Don’t be intimidated by the book’s 1,136 pages, including an alphabetical author and keyword subject index, and cross-references. The collection is fun to dip into, a reminder of why we like quotations to begin with. They give us a sense of knowing something or someone. We invoke them as “amulets, charms against chaos, mantras for dark times.” As Samuel Johnson said, “quotation is a good thing, there is a community of mind in it.” Or, in the cynical take of journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary, “Quotation is the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.”

This revised edition, with its “extensive discoveries and improvements” especially in areas of contemporary culture and politics, relied on state-of-the-art research methods and a mind-boggling canvassing of over 1,000 previous collections and anthologies. Names appear here for the first time: Obama, Steve Jobs, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sarah Palin — not to mention Donald J. Trump. Sometimes there is no definite original source, in which case “attribution” remains the going word. How nice, by the way, that Shapiro and Co. invite us, the general public, to write to them before the 3rd edition comes out.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.