Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Quotable Moments of 2011

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, is constantly on the lookout for new quotations that might make the cut for the next edition of his authoritative quotation dictionary. Below, find out what he thinks are the top ten quotations of 2011.

In 2006 I compiled The Yale Book of Quotations, published by Yale University Press.  This book is the first major quotation book to emphasize modern and American sources, including popular culture, children's literature, sports, technology, politics, law, and the social sciences, and the first quotation book of any sort to use state-of-the-art research methods to comprehensively collect famous quotations and to trace quotations to their accurate origins.  The research behind the YBQ enabled me to rewrite the histories of many of the most famous sayings.  This research continues, aided by a cadre of talented contributors who e-mail me with their discoveries or post them on their own websites such as Garson O'Toole's great Quote Investigator.

One way in which I have supplemented my book is an annual list of the most notable quotations of the year, which has received widespread publicity through being disseminated by the Associated Press and commented on by various newspapers and broadcast media throughout the world.  I present below the sixth such list, covering the year 2011.  Please note that these are not necessarily eloquent or admirable quotations, rather they have been picked because they are famous or they are important or they are particularly revealing of the spirit of our times.  Those who follow my lists will see that this year's has several quotations at the top that are different in nature from the usual Bushisms and Palinisms and celebrity gems.

  1. "We are the 99%."
    —Slogan of the "Occupy" movement

  2. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.  Nobody.  You built a factory out there -- good for you!  But I want to be clear.  You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for.  You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.  You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for."
    —Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren, Remarks, Andover, Mass., Aug. 2011

  3. "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress."
    —Billionaire Warren Buffett, New York Times op-ed, Aug. 15, 2011

  4. "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy."
    —Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Tweet, Aug. 18, 2011

  5. "Oops."
    —Presidential candidate Rick Perry, after unsuccessfully attempting to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate, Campaign debate, Nov. 9, 2011

  6. "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know.  Do you know?'"
    —Presidential candidate Herman Cain, Interview by Christian Broadcasting Network, Oct. 7, 2011

  7. "I am on a drug.  It's called 'Charlie Sheen.'  It's not available because if you try it once, you will die.  Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body."
    —Actor Charlie Sheen, Interview by ABC News, Feb. 28, 2011

  8. "Oh wow.  Oh wow.  Oh wow."
    —Businessman Steve Jobs, Last words, Oct. 5, 2011 (as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy for him)

  9. "I can't say with certitude."
    —Congressman Anthony Weiner, when asked whether a lewd photograph was in fact of him, Press conference, June 1, 2011

  10. "Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain instead decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package."
    —Lawyer Gloria Allred, on alleged sexual harassment of her client Sharon Bialek, News conference, Nov. 7, 2011

What quotations do you think were most memorable this year? Let us know in the comments below!

Fred R. Shapiro is the editor of the highly praised Yale Book of Quotations and a world-recognized authority on quotations and on reference in general. He edited the award-winning Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations and co-authored the entertaining new book, Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions (Yale University Press).

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 23rd 2011, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Gary B.
“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world.”

— Canadian NDP Leader Jack Layton, in a letter to Canadians before his death in late August.

Gary Bond
Kitchener Ontario
Friday December 23rd 2011, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
If these inane words truly reflect the spirit of our time, "we of all people most to be pitied" (St. Paul).
Saturday December 24th 2011, 4:04 PM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
I thought Senator Jon Huntsman summed things up nicely for me and was an expression of independence from lock-step liturgical think-stop littany. The Ern.
Sunday December 25th 2011, 8:14 AM
Comment by: Badri (Mumbai India)
What kind of person does it take to be completely above and beyond oneself and one's loved ones at the moment of death? Certainly one in a million. Steve Jobs was one such. I recall two (very unconnected) others.
Mahatma Gandhi, who was shot at point blank in peaceful surroundings and therefore was caught completely unawares, said "Hey, Ram" or "Hail, God" in those few moments before he died.
Sir Henry Lawrence, in whose name my school was founded, died on the battlefield during India's War of Independence with the words "Never Give In" on his lips. Those words are the motto of my school.
Friday January 13th 2012, 8:10 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
There are last words and then there are last words.

After all, John Adams' last words were "Thomas Jefferson-still survives..." when in fact that very man had died earlier that day.
Karl Marx's last ones were "Go on, get out-last words are for fools who haven't said enough." This was to his housekeeper, who requested his last words for posterity.
Beethoven's was "Friends, applaud. The comedy is finished."
Churchill's before he slipped into a coma: "I'm bored with it all."
Lord George Byron- "Now I shall go to sleep. Good night."
Ethan Allen's are legendary. Supposedly, an attending doctor tried to comfort him by saying, "General, I fear the angels are waiting for you." To which Allen replied, "Waiting, are they? Waiting, are they? Well-let 'em wait."
O. Henry reportedly said- "Turn up the lights, I don't want to go home in the dark."
Anna Pavlova's last words were, "Get my swan costume ready."
P.T Barnum's were, "How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?"
Last but certainly not least, Benjamin Franklin, on April 17, 1790 said:
"A dying man can do nothing easy."

So, as I said before, there are last words and then there are last words.

ND B., I applaud your school's motto. That is incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Sir Henry Lawrence was a true hero, as was Gandhi. Thank you for the words of those men.

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