Scholar Fred R. Shapiro is an authority on quotations and the editor of the seminal Yale Book of Quotations, a compendium of over 12,000 bits of wisdom by notable people through history. A Mount Everest of quotes! Which got us wondering: Why the fascination with quotes? And how do we know that Mark Twain quote was actually quipped by Mr. Clemens? We called up Fred to find out:

VT: Why are people fascinated with quotations?

Fred: I think there are lots of motivations. In the business world people seem to like slogans and phrases that inspire them to have better team work or be more creative. I think people value quotations from literature as a way of encapsulating the larger work or reminding them of something they enjoyed reading. Something like a proverb is very meaningful to many people who guide their lives based on them, or on other sayings that they find comforting.

VT: Has the interest in quotations been a long-standing one?

Fred: There were quotation dictionaries as far back as the 1700s. The idea then was to capture the highlights of literature and Bible verses. Today, many people include quotes in their email signatures, and greeting cards often have quotations, so I think now there's actually more interest in quotations then there's ever been.

VT: The Yale Book of Quotations contains over 12,000 entries. How did you decide which quotes to include?

Fred: My main criterion was famousness. I used state of the art research techniques to be much more comprehensive than other quotation dictionaries, including employing certain types of online searches to scientifically look for famous quotations. I also consulted prior quotation dictionaries just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

VT: What about falsely attributed quotations? There must be lots out there.

Fred: That's something that really surprised me when I was editing my book. I knew that there was a lot of folklore about famous quotations but I was astonished to find that even the most respected quotation dictionaries such as Bartlett's Quotations are really full of errors, and that little research was done. When I started my book I thought, well, maybe I'll find better information than what's in other books for a few dozen famous quotations. In fact, I was able to do that for thousands of famous quotations -- and was really surprised by how improvable the information contained in other books was.

VT: Can you give us an example?

Fred: A good example is "Go west, young man," which all the quotation dictionaries and even the Oxford English Dictionary say originated with an editor in Indiana named John Soule. In fact, I found in my research that everything that Bartlett's and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, say about this quote is wrong.

My research assistant at the Library of Congress read through the entire Terre Haute (Indiana) Express in 1851, which was supposedly the year when this editor published the quote. But he couldn't find it. I ended up coming up with evidence that this quote was, in fact, originally made by Horace Greeley.

Another example is "there's no such thing as a free lunch," which Bartlett's attributes to economist Milton Friedman, who wrote a book in 1975 called There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. But I found through my research that it was used as far back as far as 1938 as the punch line of an economist's joke.

I found these kinds of things by doing very powerful searches in databases of electronic texts, which is where a lot of my research came from. I was lucky that at the time I did my book there was an explosion of electronic texts you could search online. So I was able to trace these sayings much further back than anyone had ever been able to do before.

VT: Do these misattributions happen even with very famous people like Winston Churchill or Mark Twain?

Fred: Some famous historical figures become "quote magnets." For instance, anything that sounds folksy and humorous invariably gets attributed to Mark Twain. I researched his more popular quotes and tracked down whether Mark Twain really said them, or if not, where they came from. For the quote, "Golf is a good walk spoiled," which is attributed to Twain, I could find no evidence that he actually said it. But I was able to trace it in newspaper databases, and the earliest citation I could find there was later than Mark Twain's time.

VT: What else surprised you when you were editing this book?

Fred: I was surprised that some of the most famous and popular quotations in history were left out of Bartlett's. I also emphasized modern culture more than the other books, especially American quotations, which I found to be neglected in other books. In addition to quotes from literature and history, I included notable sayings from popular culture, sports and children's literature.

VT: How long did it take to put your book together?

Fred: Six years.

VT: Wow. Did you have a team of researchers working with you?

Fred: I was lucky I to have some very good helpers. I had research assistants, and I also connected to Internet discussion groups. An Internet group that was extremely helpful is called Stumpers, which is a network of about 1,000 reference librarians and researchers.

I would post questions on this group and often someone would go and do very good research and give me a very good answer. Some of these people were reference librarians but I also got help from a metal craftsman in Berkeley, California and tax lawyer in Washington, D.C. Some of these people got so into the project that I ended up making them official "research editors" and worked with them quite a bit.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 17th 2007, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Chandresh T.
First of all, this web site is very good. Please keep it the way it is and don't get into annoying "pop-ups" and "banners" business. The interview is very informative. I am from IT profession and find it very rewarding to learn about things other than IT profession especially about different words and its origination and the use of the words. The research done by Scholar Fred R. Shapiro is noteworthy and I would say unique to a certain extent. Many people have written books on quotes but indepth research, very few. Good reading!
Wednesday October 17th 2007, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Max C.
Another possible reason that many people, like myself, love quotes is because they provide the average person, like myself, with a valuable resource for conveying ideas or meanings with more eloquence and intelligence than would otherwise be the case. However, quotes may be a crutch for those wishing to avoid the effort required to be creatively expressive. Then all of us are not destined to be a poet, orator or sage and we need the help of those who are to supply us with the tools to communicate in a much more articulate and meaningful way. I do see them as a tool for expression as I do Thinkmap, Visual Thesarus. The utterances of King David, Shakespeare, Mark Twain and even Will Rogers evince facile expressions far better than I ever could. Its either use quotes or "Drawing on my find command of language, I said nothing." ~Robert Charles Benchley
Wednesday October 17th 2007, 3:20 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
hey this is a cool web site i love the thesaurus but anyway keep up the good work and way to go on this page!!!
Thursday October 18th 2007, 12:06 PM
Comment by: geroge K.
Attributed and denigned Quote to Marl Twain . Don't know who did
say it , but so true if you have been in San Francisco on a windy
foggy July Day .

" The cooldist winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco ! "
Friday October 19th 2007, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Mark H.
This article may end up costing me some money. I have Bartlett's, now I want the Yale Book of Quotations. While I'm writing let me just say how much I LOVE my "Visual Thesaurus". It is 10:35 am. and I have already used it 3 times. Thanks for this product.
Tuesday December 11th 2007, 11:57 AM
Comment by: Terry W.
In a recent issue of my newsletter, a loyal reader reminded me that a quote is something my salespeople give their clients and a quotation is a statement attributed to another. BTW: I have sold several people on Visual Thesaurus as well...love it.

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Quest for Quotations
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