May I Quote?

By Bryan A. GarnerMarch 14, 2022

May I Quote?

The New Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro

AS A COLLECTOR of reference books — an out-of-control number, I’m afraid — I had a full floor-to-ceiling bookcase of quotation books when, a couple of years ago, I was offered 200 more. A professional speechwriter had retired and wanted to know what to do with his large collection of these books. Even though we’d never met or even corresponded, he somehow concluded that he might bestow them on me — if I’d take them. I suspected I already owned them all. But after he sent me a list of 150 he wagered I didn’t own, and his wager was right, I gratefully accepted the gift.

There were compilations specifically about art, business, literature, politics, religion, science, and sports. There were compilations of single writers such as William F. Buckley Jr., Louis L’Amour, La Rochefoucauld, Will Rogers, William Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. There were even compilations by people not thought of as writers — Charles Barkley (“Anytime I’m on a team, we’ve got a chance to win.”), Bill Clinton, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Donald Trump, and Jack Welch. The array of available material was stunning.

On reflection, it’s not surprising that a professional speechwriter would collect these things. Think of all the speeches, good and bad, that are peppered with statements attributed to revered predecessors. Listeners are supposed to infer that the speaker has drawn upon a vast reservoir of material gathered from a lifetime of reading. But no: it was probably a quote pulled from such a compilation after two or three minutes of looking.

Two big questions arise for users and compilers of these books: should they be arranged topically or by source? If you want quotations about the subject of research, would you rather have them all in one place under R, or spread throughout the book under the names of the people who uttered the statements? My own preference has always been for the former: show me all the research quotations together. Or honesty. Or marriage. Or wit.

But the most authoritative quotation books have always been the other way: author by author, not topic by topic. That’s how John Bartlett did it in 1855 when he first assembled what, in later versions, became Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The idea is to have, tucked in the back matter, elaborate indexes that allow users to find whatever topic they’re looking for — by flipping pages back and forth. Perhaps hyperlinked electronic versions will soon make things easier.

What are the most authoritative quotation books? Two come immediately to mind: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (17th ed. 2002), to be released in an 18th edition later this year; and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (eighth ed. 2014).

But in recent years there has been a new contender: The New Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro. That brings me to an immediate need for disclosure: Shapiro has been a contributor to the last five editions of Black’s Law Dictionary, for which I’ve served as editor in chief. I retained him to research the earliest known uses of all the law-related words and phrases recorded in that 2,000-page book. His reputation as a legal researcher was well known before that association began in 1998. In any event, I have tried to approach this review disinterestedly.

Because it capitalizes on Big Data and other technological advances, the Yale Book can claim an authoritativeness that is unsurpassed. Hundreds of famous misattributions have been corrected — and probably thousands of misquotations as well. The Yale Book can legitimately claim to be the most accurate, thorough, and up-to-date quotation book ever compiled.

Take one example: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” That aphorism has been labeled by the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a “late 20th century saying.” That’s the best knowledge we’ve had. But Shapiro unearthed that very statement from a speech by William Gladstone in 1868. Then he traced it to a newspaper in Mississippi in 1838. One of his many allies then found this statement in an 1815 book: “Justice delayed is little better than justice denied.” Finally, Shapiro located a 1646 pamphlet bearing the title Another Word to the Wise, Shewing that the Delay of Justice, Is Great Injustice.

All this antedating takes a great deal of ingenious sleuthing. Modern research methods have made it possible to trace quotations to the most accurate sources. Shapiro has integrated scholarly remarks into the entries to reflect his findings. For example, in the lengthy entry for film quotations, the movie Forrest Gump (1994) is credited with “Stupid is as stupid does.” Tom Hanks delivered that line as the title character. After the attribution, Shapiro remarks: “This same line appeared much earlier in Anthony Trollope, Orley Farm (1862).” Who knew?

So thorough is Shapiro’s distillation that the author-by-author method (with only a few anomalous categories like Film Quotations and Proverbs) makes good sense. You can read the quotations from various writers and feel as if you’ve learned something about their thought patterns, whether you’re looking at those of Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, or William Wordsworth. It’s something like CliffsNotes without the paraphrasing. You’ll often feel as if you’ve gained real biographical insights.

Take the examples from President Lyndon Baines Johnson — and just the ones about other people:

•  [Of Gerald R. Ford:] “That’s what happens when you play football too long without a helmet.”

•  [Of J. Edgar Hoover:] “Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

•  [Of a prospective assistant:] “I don’t want loyalty. I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket.”

•  [Of Gerald R. Ford (again):] “So dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”

You might feel debased or ennobled depending on the source being quoted. So much depends on your perspective. The nine quotations from Alice Walker (b. 1944) — only four of which come from The Color Purple — are excellent. These four capture the spirit:

•  “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.”

•  “The good news may be that Nature is phasing out the white man, but the bad news is that’s who She thinks we all are.”

•  “Tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.”

•  “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

The idea of enumerating the quotations under the authors’ names is bound to spark debates about representation and proportionality. How do the various authors do? Here’s a sampling:

Quotee No. of Quotations
Shakespeare 455
Ambrose Bierce 144
Winston Churchill 56
Dorothy Parker 49
Lord Tennyson 46
Woody Allen 42
Ernest Hemingway 37
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 31
Theodore Roosevelt 30
Martin Luther King Jr. 21
Yogi Berra 18
Will Rogers 15
Fyodor Dostoyevsky 9
E. B. White 8
Julius Caesar 7
Toni Morrison 7
Jimi Hendrix 5
Maya Angelou 3
Mother Teresa 2
John Barth 1
Christine Blasey Ford 1
John Roberts, CJ 1
Claudia Schiffer 1
Antonin Scalia 0
Oprah Winfrey 0


What?! Claudia Schiffer is in, but not Antonin Scalia? Christine Blasey Ford but not Oprah Winfrey? Well, the book isn’t perfect. But it’s much more inclusive than any other quotation book I’ve seen — and I’ve seen a few.

Don’t throw the old ones out. In this field, there will always be great nuggets of quotability found in some places but not others. The quotation books compiled by W. H. Auden and H. L. Mencken, for example, are worth keeping just because of the compiler’s taste. But if you need the confidence of impeccably authoritative attributions, the Yale Book is your best source. To adapt an advertising slogan (found as no. 20 in the entry for Advertising Slogans), the Yale Book is the ultimate quoting machine.


Bryan A. Garner is an American lawyer, grammarian, and lexicographer.

LARB Contributor

Bryan A. Garner is an American lawyer, lexicographer, and teacher. His newest book is Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (1711–1851) (Grolier Club, 2021), in which he shows the wild variability among English-language grammarians in tallying the parts of speech (from two to 33). He is the author of Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., Oxford, 2016).


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