Class Conscious: Don't Quote Me, but If You Feel You Must, Make Sure It's in Writing

Article excerpt

I once complained to a friend that, having been educated at a secondary modern school, I understood few Latin tags, to which he replied: "Ah well ... nil desperandum." The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said to a new MP: "Don't quote Latin. Say what you have to say, and then sit down." The advice would be otiose today, except maybe in the case of Boris Johnson. But Latin tags and Latin quotations are used too often for the oversensitive likes of me, and I am very wary of the whole business of learned quotation.

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Because I happen to have been labouring on a dictionary of quotations for about three and a half years, people often turn to me to give the provenance for any quotations they spout. When a friend and I were thinking of taking up lawn bowls, he asked me: "Who was it who said, 'Beware of any pastime for which you have to buy new clothes'?" (We'd just found out that you have to wear all white at my local bowls club, and shoes with no heels.) It was Henry David Thoreau who said that, as I remembered, rather typically, just too late to tell my friend before he drove off. At least, Thoreau wrote something very like that. My friend had most likely uttered a quotation within Ambrose Bierce's definition of the word: "The act of repeating erroneously the words of another."

Certainly, it's a clever observation of Thoreau's, but why cite it in conversation? I don't believing in quoting aloud. It's swanky, and it stops everyone else in their tracks. There's a numb moment when people quote aloud: are we meant to be impressed by the quoter or by the quoted? Or is the credit to be shared, and if so in what proportion? (Does the quoter take 10 per cent, like a sort of agent, for the remark?) Is the quotation a testament to the brainpower of the speaker or merely to the power of their memory, to the breadth of their reading or the quality of their education? …