Occasionally, someone asks us at the Reference Desk to verify a quotation. It may be a commonly known phrase, something a famous person said, a proverb from another land, or something pretty (okay, terribly!) obscure. What to do? Google, right! But hold onto your Googs; if you try Google, you’ll often find that the exact same quote – whether correct or not – ping-pongs and pinballs and pachinkos its way from blog to website to Facebook to Pinterest and back to blog ad infinitum with no authoritative source to ground it until nobody really knows whether the quote is accurate, where it originally came from, or whether it’s coming or going. Of course, that might not matter if you share the philosophy of the Bandar-Log Monkeys in the chapter on Kaa’s Hunting in the first book of Kipling’s The Jungle Book:
We all say so, and so it must be true….
But we rely on accuracy rather than popularity here, and having to plow through an endless number of parroting web pages just makes it all the harder to verify the authentic text and its original source. That’s why we have what you might call the Un-Google: a good half dozen or so shelves of quotation books and related dictionaries and sources in the Reference Collection in the P6000’s. It requires patience, sure, and it’s far from perfect — finding an accurate quote with a confirmed provenance can be a very lengthy and difficult affair, especially when the quotation is inaccurately or only partially remembered — but at least when you find one, the source is usually given.
There are general quotation compilations, such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, as well as ones on very specific subjects. (Throwing Monkeys at the Coconuts, for instance, is a collection of travel quotations, although that’s one we don’t have.) And the indexing of quotes inside the book will vary: some will be indexed by author, some by date or theme, some by the first line of the quote, and others might be by language or country. Here are a few examples from several quotation books and specialized dictionaries in this part of the Reference Collection:
REF PN6080 .C57 2001
The Concise Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (p. 113)
Si nous n’avions point de défauts, nous ne prendrions pas tant de plaisir à en remarquer dans les autres.
(If we had no failings, we would not be so pleased to notice them in others.)
(La Rochefoucauld: Reflexions)
REF PN 6084 .W6 B47 1996
Women’s Words: The Columbia Book of Quotations by Women (p. 251)
… people are almost always better than their neighbours think they are.
(George Eliot, Middlemarch, chapter 72)
REF PN 6231 .W64 B43 2015
Spin-glish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language (pp. 82, 232)
Section 1: Spin-glish to English definition:
Health care procurement specialist: Insurance salesperson
Section 2: English to Spin-glish definition:
Undertaker: After-death care provider; bereavement care expert; post-health professional.
(This recent spin-quote will unfortunately have to wait for the 2nd edition:
“empowering a culture of controversy prevention.”
REF PN 6371 .D65 1996
I Love Me, Vol. I
Now, this title sounds rather like a multi-volume ode to narcissism, doesn’t it? Anyone you know? Can’t wait for Vol. II to come out? Then try reading it backwards: it’s a dictionary of palindromes! Many entries are rather forced – after all, palindromes are difficult! – but some are rather charming (p.231):
Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron
Nor are palindromes restricted to English (p. 219.):
Nisumaa oli isasi ilo aamusin
(Finnish: The field of wheat was your father’s joy in the morning)
Hmm, I think I’ll let you figure out what that one means! There are full word palindromes, too, not just letter-by-letter ones (p. 139):
Girl, bathing on Bikini, eyeing boy, finds boy eyeing bikini on bathing girl.
And for those who don’t care for Hawaiian music (p. 250):
Oh, no! Don Ho!
But if someone comes up and tells you this practically cliché palindrome: “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” you can offer the perfect rejoinder given on p.227: “No, it’s a banana bastion.”
Sometimes, everyone knows the quotation and who said it – except when that’s not the case. Like what? Well, like this popular and insightful quotation from Petronius Arbiter in about 210 B.C.:
We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
But there’s no note of who translated it into English – or did it even need to be translated? Did Petronius even write it? Jim Reeds looked into it and noted that Petronius Arbiter was alive in Nero’s reign over 200 years later – a rather Biblical lifespan! Beyond that, Reeds couldn’t find any citing of the quotation before 1945 or so (and that’s A.D., mind you, not B.C.!). But what about the provenance of this revisionist information, much less the quotation itself? I’ve seen the relevant web page myself, but All Things Must Pass (à la George Harrison’s album title), and so has that web page! Fortunately, the Wayback Machine (www.waybackmachine.org) can come to the rescue, so here’s a preserved version of the page:
(You can close the banner message that appears at the top.)
There are plenty of variants and translations given in the beginning, so you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to the source information about the quotation.
A recent book has even been written on the subject of mistaken quotes:
Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations by Garson O’Toole
Still, not every good quote is collected in a quotation book, so until next time, I’ll leave you with this bit of wisdom from a long ago fortune cookie:
A little madness,
A little kindness
Makes for happiness