Book of Quotes

‘Get a life.’

We say it all the time. But who said it first? Easy: The Washington Post on January 23, 1983. Before The Yale Book of Quotations, though, modern sayings like this were much harder to place.

“If you want a thing to be well done, you must do it yourself.” —Henry Wadworsth Longfellow, “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” 1858.

In 2006, Fred Shapiro, an associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, published The Yale Book of Quotations. The book was not the first of its kind. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, now in its 17th edition, was first published in 1855, and in 1953, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations followed. Though each of these compilations contains over 20,000 quotations, Shapiro still found them inadequate. When the World Almanac carried out a survey in 2000 to ascertain the ten most famous quotations of the 20th century, he noticed that three of the ten — the “Serenity Prayer” and quotes from Lou Gehrig and Ronald Reagan — were not included in the Oxford Dictionary’s most recent edition. Shapiro set out to fill this gap and create “the first major book of quotations geared to the needs of the modern reader.” The product of six years of painstaking research, Shapiro’s book is now one of a kind. It’s not every day, after all, that we find Emerson and Eminem in each other’s company.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way” —William Hazlitt, New Monthly Magazine, February 1822.

To compile his extensive collection of over 12,000 quotations, Shapiro embarked on a literary treasure hunt, following clue after clue to cross-reference and trace sources. He conducted library and Internet research, taking advantage of such resources as JSTOR and newspaperarchive.com. He went so far as to question witnesses of events in order to track down and confirm the origins of modern sayings. But Shapiro was not alone in his task: some of the most vital work, he says, was completed by research students across the country who tediously sifted through newspapers and magazines for individual citations. And for suggestions on the most famous quotes from contemporary pop culture, he consulted his children.

Shapiro’s detective work paid off. Take, for example, Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” “In popular legend,” Shapiro explained, “Murphy’s Law originated in 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, coined by project manager George E. Nichols after hearing Edward A. Murphy, Jr. complain about a wrongly wired rocket sled experiment.” Shapiro had heard the expression was repeated in a 1950 news conference. However, after reading through every line of every newspaper from the Edwards air force base in 1950, he found no record of a press conference or, for that matter, any mention of the “Law.” On further investigation, he discovered that the first usage of the adage was in fact George Orwell’s 1941 “War-Time Diary.”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” —Freeborn County (Minn.) Standard, May 2, 1894.

Critics of Shapiro’s project might argue that his revisionist mission is flawed, that modern and contemporary quotes have no place among those of centuries past. What right does the rap of Sean “Puffy” Combs have to stand next to the letters of Christopher Columbus? But no matter how different the two men and their words are, The Yale Book of Quotations suggests that both belong to an exclusive club of individuals whose terminology reflects who we are today. After all, at an institution like Yale, we learn that history still in the making is as important as that of the past. Through his book of quotations, Shapiro has determined to catalogue both.

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