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Meeting People: The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations


By Kirsty OUP-UK

Quotations are an endless source of information and amusement. In celebration of the new edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, editor Elizabeth Knowles has kindly written the piece below, taking us through the most engaging parts of working on a dictionary of quotations.

One of the most fascinating parts of working on a dictionary of quotations is the sense of encountering a wide range of distinctive personalities: what the 14th-century William Langland might have described as ‘a fair field full of folk’. Many people come to life through their own words. Marlene Dietrich commented ‘Glamour is what I sell in my act, and it costs plenty. It’s my stock-trade.’ The American artist Edward Hopper said of his work, ‘What I wanted to do was to pain sunlight on the side modern-quotations.jpgof the house.’ Maurice Herzog, the French mountaineer who in 1950 became the first person to climb Annapurna, described the fascination of mountaineering as ‘playing on the frontiers of life and death’. Some people are brought to life through the words of others. ‘He always had a rainbow pen’, said Joan Baez, simply, of Bob Dylan. But together, they bring together voices which open doors to different decades and different worlds.

Often a quotation gives a sense of the impact that can be made by an individual. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ The philosophy of Cicely Saunders, British founder of the hospice movement, is summed up in her own words: ‘You matter because you are you, and you matter to the last moment of your life.’ The Reverend Jesse Jackson crystallized what was achieved by the civil rights activist Rosa Parks: ‘She sat down in order that we all might stand up—and the walls of segregation came down.’ Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Justice of the US Supreme Court, warned that ‘We must never forget that the only real source of power that we as judges can tap is the respect of the people.’ In 1968 the broadcaster and journalist Walter Cronkite, returning from a visit to the war zone, said in special television report: ‘It now seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.’ Hearing of it, President Lyndon Johnson commented grimly, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Mr Average Citizen.’

Words like these touch on deeply serious subjects, but of course one of the other pleasures of a dictionary of quotations is that it brings together a range of subjects and tones. A couple of pages away from Cicely Saunders you can find Yves Saint-Laurent saying wistfully, ‘I wish I had invented blue jeans.’ (References to iconic fashion items also include two comments on the bikini. Louis Reard, inventor of the bikini, laid down the rule that ‘A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.’ The American fashion writer Diana Vreeland commented that it ‘revealed everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name’.)

Advertising slogans highlight lifestyle preferences. Today ‘matchy-matchy’ is a pejorative term, but in the 1940s Revlon’s ‘Matching lips and fingertips’ were the last word in fashion. It may now seem improbable that there was ever an advertisement offering the reassurance ‘More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.’ The decades following the Second World War offered an increasing number of prepared foodstuffs: Mr Kipling’s ‘Exceedingly good cakes’ in 1960s Britain, and ‘Stove Top Stuffing’, to be offered with the words ‘Stuffing instead of potatoes?’ in 1970s America. By the 1990s, more radical changes were being heralded by Ikea’s ‘Chuck out the chintz’ and Apple’s ‘Think different’.

109_0997.JPGA couple of quotations from the world of sport remind us of how circumstances can change. In 2006, the Brazilian football coach, manager of the Portuguese national team, said regretfully, ‘Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.’ His words can be set against those of two famous sports personalities of earlier days. The English footballer Alan Ball, looking back to 1966, the year in which England won the World Cup, told an interviewer: ‘I tell you what made us what we were. We had this wonderful feeling that we were still part of the people.’ The Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, looking back across the decades to her outstanding success in the 1948 Olympics, said reflectively, ‘When I competed, no one ever thought it would be possible to make money from doing something you enjoyed so much.’

Quotations often juxtapose past and present. In 1960, Michael Ramsey, then Archbishop of York, said in an address, ‘I should love to think of a black Archbishop of York … telling a future generation of the scandal and glory of the Church.’ Over forty years later, ‘Well here I am’ said Archbishop John Sentamu, quoting Ramsey, at his inauguration in 2005.

A constant question to the Editor of a dictionary of quotations is, inevitably, ‘What is your favourite quotation?’ It’s impossible to give an absolute answer, because each time you go back to the book you notice something new to amuse or inform or challenge. Often you meet a new person, or hear a new voice.

Elizabeth Knowles is a historical lexicographer and Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th edition, 2004) and What They Didn’t Say: A Dictionary of Misquotations (2006).

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Davies

    As Peter Teiman, previously stated in a review article, and I would concur that this is a book that can be used for all occasions.

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