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How Great Quotes Shaped Our World

Rebroadcast from August 23, 2011 at 11:00 AM

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 turnitin.com. 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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  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.dukat Eric Dukat

    “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  – Groucho Marx

  • http://www.facebook.com/kurt.gaibl Kurt Gaibl

    “a smooth sea never made a skillful mariner” thi swas in a fortune cookie!

  • http://www.facebook.com/brooks.laurie Laurie Brooks

    I have 2 favorite quotes:
    from A.A. Milne, “Rivers know this. There is no hurry.  We shall get there some day.”
    And from a David Mamet play, “We must have a pie.  Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”

  • Patricia McWilliams

    Quote I have over my desk that my customers love:

    “Lord, help me to meet this self-imposed and totally unnecessary challenge.”

    Have no idea who first said it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissa.s.vaughn.5 Melissa Stoddard Vaughn

    This is a great show- I love language. One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Seuss – “It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how!” It is from The Cat in the Hat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kurt.gaibl Kurt Gaibl

    “those who mind dont matter and those who matter dont mind.” -dr seuss

    • Steve__T

      “It’s mind over matter, if you don’t have a mind it doesn’t matter”

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.dukat Eric Dukat

    Please talk about the intentional misquotes from antiquity that are used to support modern social issues that have circulated first on fax machines, then email and now various social mediums.

  • Audra Schlehlein

    I love the quote from Oscar Wilde, he asked a woman at a dinner party, “mind if I smoke?” – her reply, “I don’t care if you burn.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moran.1612 John Moran

    The longing to be primitive is a disease of culture

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moran.1612 John Moran

    The longing to be primitive is a disease of culture

  • jim_thompson


    A favorite quote that I find myself using-especially here in Sout Carolina-is from the late Christopher hitchens.  I heard him say this to a fellow panlist years ago on Book TV:  “There is nothig more vulgar nor nauseating than the pretense of piety.”

  • Ray in VT

    I suppose that I’ve comment on quotes.  They can be great, but a number
    of incorrectly attributed or flat out false ones always seem to
    circulate.  They, like some other popular myths, like how Columbus was
    just about the only guy in 1492 who thought that the Earth was round,
    just have lives of their own.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.moran.1612 John Moran

    the longing to be primitive is the disease   of culture

  • Ray in VT

    “I love Paul Revere whether he rode or not.” – attributed to Warren G.
    Harding in the book with the same title by Richard Shenckman.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kurt.gaibl Kurt Gaibl

    LOL from earlier today on your show!!!!
    “…a dog’s breakfast of ambiguity.” -josh barro

  • ericd725

    “beam me up (your name here)”

    • Trond33

      LOL – I used that one in the college dorms, where you had an intercom up to the rooms.  The front desk closed at midnight, so at times, we would hit the intercom at 12:30 a.m., crackling voice “beam me up Scotty.”  

  • syedm

    Why do you guys think we don’t make our own quotes instead of just taking what others said. Personally I like quotes but I try and make my own. Any input?
    For example,
    I am what you don’t want to be, but everybody you know is trying to be”

  • http://www.facebook.com/carrie.youngblood1 Carrie Youngblood

    I am still looking for a good quote for those who predict the end of the world, or at least the downfall of civilization as we know it, that is on the same level as Paul Samuelson’s quip “Economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1347766031 Sabrina Dupree

    Rainn Wilson’s character on The Office, Dwight K. Schrute:
    “The eyes are the groin of the head”

  • http://www.facebook.com/luke.held.9 Luke Held

    What happened to the Henry Ford show?

    “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”

    “An idealist is a person who helps other people to be prosperous.”

    “There are no big problems, there are just a lot of little problems.”

    “Speculation is only a word covering the making of money out of the manipulation of prices, instead of supplying goods and services.”

    “Money is like an arm or leg – use it or lose it.”

  • Ed Cobb

    Quantum mechanics:  The dreams stuff is made of.

    Time flies like an arrow;
    Fruit flies like a banana.

    There’s no hope–but I could be wrong!

    Never trust a spiritual leader who can’t dance.

    Good judgment comes from experience;
    Experience comes from bad judgment.

    Time’s fun when you’re having flies! –Kermit

    I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me!

    The US will always do the right thing–after exhausting all the alternatives.

    Things that have never happened before happen all the time.

    Babies:  Natural or man-made?

    • Johannes

      I heard this on NPR last week: 
      “NPR always gets it right; eventually.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/montanatommy Tommy Robertson

    “City women is spoiled rotten.All they think about is smearin’ themselves with beauty grease. Fancy smellin’ renderin’s. Why,if you was to hug one of’ em, she’d squirt out of yore arms like a prune pit!” -Granny

  • lifobryan

    Robert Anton Wilson: “The majority of our ancestors were not perfect ladies and gentlemen. The majority of them weren’t even mammals.”

  • amyhille

    I read Anne Franks’, “The Diary of a Young Girl” when I was a young girl myself.  It touched me profoundly and the tragedy of what happened to her family always haunted me.  I use her quote, 

     “Nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”                                                                                       – Anne Frank
    in the signature of my emails, in part, because it’s my personal philosophy but also to give voice to this amazing, inspiring girl, who was robbed of her life.  As the mother of two daughters, it inspires me to take action daily and to teach my girls to use THEIR voice and impact the world using THEIR gifts. 

  • Ben Cornforth

    There are two things in life that have proof: Math and Alchohol

  • KZ_San

    “Common sense is far from common”

    • hennorama

      KZ_San – I prefer “Common sense isn’t”.

  • Mickeymac

    If at first you don’t succeed, try shortstop!

    Soupy Sales

  • buzzwald

    Julian Barnes:

    “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

  • bayney

    “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky because it’s always twenty years behind.” – Mark Twain

    • sickofthechit

       I think we are more like 30 years behind now.  And I love it more than ever!

    • Trond33

      I use this one, but you hear “twenty years” and “ten years,” seems to be a debate as to what it really is.  In some ways, Mark Twain was spot on, then in other regards, Kentuckian’s will surprise you.  On average, I think Kentuckian’s know more about the world and world events than most American’s.  

      • bayney

        Sometimes I hear Cincinnati in place of Kentucky, as well.

        BTW I’m an eighth-generation Kentuckian — that’s why I like the quote so much : )

      • Johannes

        “Y’all just keep on thinking Kentucky is not the place you want to be. We’ll all be fine with that.”

  • madnomad554

    Misquotations are the only quotations that are never misquoted…

    Hesketh Pearson

  • buzzwald

    The 2 F’s in giraffe are like 2 giraffes running through the word giraffe.
    —Ron Padgett

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=524512870 Maria Cecilia Bernier

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.-Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • madnomad554

    “The difference between sex and love is that sex relieves tension and love causes it”

    woody allen

  • ToyYoda

    Here’s a few:

    1. Every year we pass through unknowingly through the anniversary of our death.

    2. If I jump off a cliff I will die, but it will take a whole planet to kill me.

  • buzzwald

    “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

    —Julian Barnes

  • ToyYoda

    This is a quote  from Ronald Reagan, which I was surprised that he could be so witty:

    “Economist see something work in practice, and wonder if it could work in theory.”

    • nj_v2

      “Where I differ from the economists is that I admit I know nothing about economics.”
      —Arthur C. Clarke

  • http://www.facebook.com/dee2thejay Darin Jackson

    In recognition of her now last 12 months on TV, the famous misquote of Ba Ba Wa Wa here paraphrased from Wikipedia: Walters was widely lampooned for having asked actress, Katharine Hepburn, “If you were a twee, what kind would you be?” On her last 20/20 television episode, Walters showed video of the Hepburn interview, showing the actress saying that she would like to be a tree. Walters merely followed up with the question, “What kind of a twee?”, and Hepburn responded “an oak” because they are strong and pretty.

  • MarkVII88

    Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton’s: Batman

    “Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”

  • Wayne Mikula

    “In my world, nothing ever goes wrong.” Nisargidatta
    MaharajWayne Mikula, DVM, MPH, ScDSan Francisco Bay Area

  • chessiemama

     Relating to quoting exactly:  I’ve heard it’s said in the military that the worst thing a subordinate can do to a commander — to do exactly what he says to do, when he says to do it, how he says to do it.  “Malicious obedience”

  • Trond33

    One of my favorites that is fun to drop because people do not know it that well is, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” by Johnny Cash.  I have turned a few heads at social gatherings dropping that one.

    One of my own is, “mediocrity is the cancer of society.”  I use it all the time when I see people just not taking the time to go the whole nine yards.  

  • math_is_fun

    “We have a civilization based on science and technology, and we’ve cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That is as clear a prescription for disaster as you can imagine.”  – Carl Sagan, “Wonder and Skepticism”, Skeptical Inquirer 19#1 (Jan/Feb 95), pp. 24 – 30.

  • ToyYoda

    Here’s one I saw scribbled on a stall wall by two different writers:

    “God is dead.”  -Nietzche.

    And just below that:

    “Nietzche is dead.” -God

  • twizler

    I have an unreliably attributed favorite from Adm Bull Halsey:  There are no great men, only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstances to confront, and by their effort, Overcome them.  I love this one, and I hear Fanfare for the Common Man in the background when I think of it.  Ron Wszalek (Shallek)

  • ericd725

    I’m surprised I can’t think of any George Carlin quotes

    • Johannes

      “Think about how stupid the average person is; then realize that half of them are stupider.” Carlin

  • Rozzieman

    One of my favorites is from Mark Twain, 
    “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” I think of that often today in our political discourse. 
    Then there are the false quotes, usually on blogs,  attributed to either Mark Twain or Thomas Jefferson, because of the wisdom we expect from them. These are used to support someone’s  point of view on controversial issues like guns or taxes. Which is why I  like that Mark Twain, which hope is for real. 

  • syedm

    He who has a ‘why’ to live for can live through any ‘how’. – cant remember his name

  • Harris Roen

    “Everybody lies, but it doesn’t matter because nobody is listening.” Nick Diamos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/christy.snider1 Christy Snider

    My favorite quote, from Sir Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to prevail, is for good men to do nothing.”  Did Edmund Burke actually say this?

  • ToyYoda

    When I was a kid, the first quote that ever stuck in my mind was from Socrates:

    “A life unexamined is not worth living.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.sanders.7374 Mark Sanders

    It infuriates me to be wrong when I know that I’m right.  –  Moliere: French playwright actor and master of comedy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.sanders.7374 Mark Sanders

    It infuriates me to be wrong when I know that I’m right.  –  Moliere: French playwright actor and master of comedy.

  • notafeminista

    “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Jessica Rabbit

  • Neal Grasso

    “Here Lies Lester Moore, Four Slugs from a 44, No Les, No More”
    On a tombstone in Tombstone, AZ.

  • Neal Grasso

    My Father’s favorite:  “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate!”

    • jefe68

      My father’s was: “You can’t go home again kid”.

      • Johannes

        My Dad: ” We all make mistakes, so make sure you make an original mistake. Make a new mistake,   because only a moron makes the same mistake twice.”

      • nj_v2

        “My parents moved a lot when I was a kid, but I was always able to find them.”
        —Rodney Dangerfield

  • Cyberchip


  • Cyberchip


  • Cyberchip

    There is a bug in your system that causes one to be “unable” to make a comment; and it guides one to register; but, then, the update of the site does not occur until one validates the email… but then.  All the times it said it wouldn’t accept it ‘Because’ one hadn’t registered, get posted along with the last one which did post.
    I would call this a bug with a tophat.  On one hand, one doesn’t need to retype the entry (although this isn’t known at the time),  thus the tophat; but, one the other hand creates duplication, but no options to remove the duplicates.  Perhaps I can edit them blank?!

    • Johannes

      “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Cyberchip

    The author is claimed to be unknown; but, I worked this one for many years using it in differnt forms (before and around 1974) until I came up with “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”  I then said it often after that to see if it would catch on because it’s a truism.  I heard it first time on television sometime in 1976/77.

    In fact, if I come up with an invention, and I really want the product…. I talk about it…. a lot.So, this begs a question; what about a quote that even if it had existed before, was arrived at independently. I mean really, a lot of people lay claim to this quote, and I developed it out of someone saying I was paranoid. I responded, (paraphrase) “Well, what if someone really is out to get you, are you still paranoid?”I first used it in written form around1994 as a tag in the original ‘e-mail’ system back then which was not really email but a electronic mail system run by amateurs around the world.I don’t find it hard to believe that it would develop out of the ether, because most quotes do; or that someone else could also develop it independently because I’m practical and  pragmatic and don’t operate in a void.

    • Johannes

      Really Chipper?

    • Steve__T

       Good you don’t live in a void. Circa 1968 San Francisco’s Hate Ashbury district a hippy selling grass talking about police, “I may be paranoid, but that don’t mean they aint after me”

  • raymondahicks

    From the English Parliment…
    Democracy has to be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch.

  • kevnorth

    One of my favorites is from Frank McKinney Hubbard – “The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.”

    My brother, a financial advisor, HATES it.

    • eckerjacob

       Also attributed to Will Rogers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/russell.ludwick Russell Ludwick

    As an engineer I live by this one. 
    “One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop.” – G Weilacher

    • nj_v2

      “God help us; we’re in the hands of engineers.”

      —Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park, 1993

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellen.johnston.125 Ellen Johnston

    It’s never too late to get your cherry back. 


  • Ellen S

    I love to use quotes on my emails, but mostly just quote Avatar Meher Baba (who first said “Don’t worry, be happy”). Spiritual knowledge is the highest imo. But it’s a delicate dance NOT going to the pious side when you do this. lol

     “Real happiness lies in making others happy.” – Meher Baba

  • jefe68

    “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk.”

    “Champaign for your real friends, real pain for your shame friends.”

    “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me rather than frontal lobotomy.”
    – Tom Waits

    “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
    – George Carlin

    “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

    “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others.”

    “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.”

    “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
    ― Groucho Marx,

    • nj_v2

      Re. Waits (similar play on construction)…
       “Tell him I was too f*cking busy—or vice versa.”
      —Dorothy Parker

       “You look like a girl who’s had nothing but bad breaks. I could clean and tighten those brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage overnight.” 
      —Groucho Marx (Ironically, the actress to whom Marx made the comment in the movie Monkey Business, Thelma Todd, died of carbon monoxide poisoning sitting in a car parked in a garage.)

       “The devil craps in the big pile.”
      —A. Einstein

  • jcyclist

    One common misquote that makes no sense is: “The proof is in the pudding.”  The real quote is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”  That makes sense!  One of my favorite quotes though is by Malcolm Forbes: “Anybody who thinks money is everything has never been sick. Or is.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.burke.98434 Patrick Burke


  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.burke.98434 Patrick Burke

    “You’re playing worse and worse every day and right now you’re playing like it’s next month.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.burke.98434 Patrick Burke

    “I never forget anything I remember” < Mom (alzheimers)

  • http://www.facebook.com/constantine.kossifos Constantine N. Kossifos

    Constantine N. Kossifos ca. 1994

  • http://www.facebook.com/constantine.kossifos Constantine N. Kossifos


    • Johannes

      This sounds! Greek. I like this.

  • hennorama

    Given some recent controversies, I’d like to offer two quotes from Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis:

    “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”


    “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law


  • hennorama

    “Measure twice, cut once” – any carpenter.

  • hennorama

    “THINK” - IBM founder Thomas J. Watson.

  • delmar70

    “Only boring people ‘get bored’ ” – Martin Delgado, CA. USA 

    (my quote in response to a lifetime of hearing people make the statement “I’m bored”)

  • Raj Ramachandran

    The difference between wit and twit is a character. – funabridged

  • Johannes

    “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” FrankZappa

  • nj_v2

    To do is to be. —J.P. Sartre
    To be is to do. —E. Kant
    Do-be-do-be-do. —F. Sinatra

  • Michele


  • Steve__T

    Found on the desk of an Air Force 1st Sargent.

    “I’m never wrong, I thought I was once, but I was mistaken”

  • Steve__T

    “Our complaint’s Mgr is Helen Waite if you have a complaint go to Helen Waite”

  • Steve__T

    “Ever stop to think and forget to start again” On my key chain.

  • Steve__T

     Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress.
    But I repeat myself.

    – Mark Twain

Aug 21, 2014
In this November 2012, file photo, posted on the website freejamesfoley.org, shows American journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. In a horrifying act of revenge for U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq, militants with the Islamic State extremist group have beheaded Foley — and are threatening to kill another hostage, U.S. officials say. (AP)

An American is beheaded. We’ll look at the ferocity of ISIS, and what to do about it.

Aug 21, 2014
Jen Joyce, a community manager for the Uber rideshare service, works on a laptop before a meeting of the Seattle City Council, Monday, March 17, 2014, at City Hall in Seattle. (AP)

We’ll look at workers trying to live and make a living in the age of TaskRabbit and computer-driven work schedules.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

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