How Great Quotes Shaped Our World

Great quotations. What makes them? And how they shape our language and our view of the world

Winston Churchill 1940 (AP)

Winston Churchill 1940 (AP)

“I hate quotations,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Tell me what you know.” But even that, says my guest today, was a quotation. The quotable quote, the durable quotation, is everywhere now. People stack them on their Facebook pages, tag them on their e-mails, tape them over their desks.

They quote Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. Mae West and Lady Gaga. Erasmus and… Emerson. It’s not just a human tic, says my guest today. These quoted words shape our language, and our view of the world.

This hour On Point: the irresistible quotation.

-Tom Ashbrook


Gary Saul Morson, professor of arts and humanities at Northwestern University, where he is also professor of Slavic languages and literature. He is the author of The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture.

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Times Higher Education Supplement “I own a copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but I’ve always had a condescending and disdainful attitude towards it, even though it still sits next to the dictionary on my office shelf. I think I’ve used it exactly once, shortly after receiving it as a teenager, to look up “War is hell”, which Gary Saul Morson’s The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture informs me (quoting Louis Menand paraphrasing The Yale Book of Quotations) was not actually uttered by William Tecumseh Sherman; Morson also explains that it doesn’t matter that Sherman didn’t say it, and that he might as well have, and that, in a way, “William Tecumseh Sherman” did.”

Literary Review “Academics like me are skilled users of Never heard of it? Ask the nearest undergraduate and watch their cheek blanch. Turnitin is the trade’s leading ‘plagiarism detector’. You upload the student’s essay or dissertation and it’s checked against trillions of words and phrases in seconds.”

Weekly Standard “Sooner or later, all good dinner table debates reduce themselves to semantics. Yes, John Stuart Mill argued that your freedom only extends to the point where you do harm unto others, but what is harm? Sure, you can say that the Beatles were the best rock band of all time, but what do you actually mean by best? This kind of futile parsing is the raison d’être of Gary Saul Morson’s new book, a work devoted to the arcane matter of what is and isn’t a quotation.”

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