Version classiqueVersion mobile

Why Do We Quote?

Ruth Finnegan

I. Setting the present scene

2. Tastes of the Present: The Here and Now of Quoting

Texte intégral

  • 1 Mass Observer MO/B1898 (for further information see following section, also Appendices).

Well, I’m quite likely to quote from almost anything. Certainly conversations
I’ve had or heard, lines from plays, lines from poems or books, newspapers
and magazines, the Bible, catch-lines from comedy shows. Not jokes
(Retired claims assessor, East Sussex)1

  • 2 Mass Observer MO/W3816.

I thought I didn’t quote much. My husband pointed out to me that in his
opinion I was wrong
(33 year old primary school teacher, Yorkshire)2

1What do people quote, and how? Where do they find their quotations? And what do they think about quoting? Since my own experience only goes so far, the next two chapters take a look at how some present-day people are engaging in quotation in the everyday life of here and now.

2.1. ’Here and now’?

2Not that ’here and now’ is simple to pin down. Even in the most local of local settings people follow diverse ways, and, as we know well, local patterns do not stand alone but interact with others across the world and the generations. To add to the complexity, any population contains people of many ages whose experiences and memories span many different timescales.

  • 3 On the ethnography of speaking and writing together with the general approach to methodology in th (...)

3But if there is no single ’here and now’, it is still worth starting out not from a generalised invocation of ’what we usually do’, let alone grander terms like ’the normal practice’, ’our contemporary assumptions’ or ’ordinary people’s experience’, but from a specific time and place. So my intention here is to take a slice through people’s practices in Britain today, especially but not solely those in England. It is only a slice, a limited one. But it follows the general spirit of the ethnographic studies of speaking and of writing which have led to so much insight by focussing on the actions of particular people at identifiable moments of time and place.3 Here it can afford us a closer look at certain specific quoting practices of today before the more historical and comparative perspective of later chapters.

  • 4 Apart from a few periods abroad my home has been in Milton Keynes since 1969. My earlier research (...)

4The material comes partly from my own observations. I have lived in south-central England for many decades, interacting daily with people in the locality, reading local material, and undertaking research in Milton Keynes, the town where I have long dwelt.4 As well as building on this background knowledge I also carried out more systematic scrutiny, reported in the following chapter, of how quotation marks were used in certain unpretentious local publications. My focus was less on the prescriptions of grammarians and other would-be guardians of our language or on the conventions of academic writing so often taken as the norm, as on the active practices of ordinary communicating.

  • 5 5 The Oxford University Press Modern Quotations Dictionaries Survey was conducted as part of the p (...)
  • 6 See Appendix 2 for more information about members of the panel, also for further

5More important however have been the observations and reflections of others. Some of these have been gathered informally, some others come from a large-scale Oxford University Press online survey in 2006.5 But by far the most extensive source for these two chapters lies in the focused commentaries on quoting and quotations written by some two hundred individuals in late 2006 and early 2007. The contributors were members of a semi-permanent panel of volunteer writers set up by the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. Over many years these writers have been sending in regular reports on their experiences and observations, writing in free form in response to a series of loosely-organised queries known as ’directives’ (Fig. 2.1 illustrates the start of one return). Predominantly living in England, the insights and comments of these reflective participant observers run through this volume and occupy the central place in Chapters 2 and 3.6

6The backgrounds, interests and occupations of these writers were varied, as were their ages. There was some imbalance in favour of South-East England, of women and of older writers. The slight age weighting actually turned out not wholly a disadvantage. The longer experience of older commentators brought a valuable perspective, further aided by their reflections on recurrent life cycles over several generations, extending the experience back to the mid-twentieth century, in some cases beyond. And since the ’here and now’ inevitably contains not just current activities but people’s longer memories – of peculiar significance in the context of quoting – this time span enabled greater insights into the patterns of both change and continuity that underlie contemporary lives.

  • 7 Throughout this and the following chapter all quotations, unless otherwise identified or clearly f (...)

7So though this cannot be a full ethnography of people’s quoting practices and concepts even within the relatively limited temporal and geographical span of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century England, it does focus down on a series of actual people operating today. What they do, the institutions and products they engage with, their reflections on quoting and the practices they comment on – all these provide a slice of life that will certainly not be ’typical’ of what happens the world over, nor make up a single uniform system even within its own setting. Indeed what gives these accounts their particular value is their diversity. But at the least it represents one glimpse into lived and activated practices, supported by the commentators’ preparedness to expatiate not only on their observations but on their own personal experiences and individual viewpoints – and, as extensively quoted here, in their own words.7

2.2. What are people quoting today?

8The picture drawn by these commentators of both their own experiences and their observations of others was no simple one, and the aspects they chose to stress were diverse. There were indeed some recurrent patterns, but also marked contrasts and (to me) some surprises.

Fig. 2.1 Example of extract from a Mass Observer comment.
Response by an ex civil servant from Staines (MO/B2605)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

9A few took quite a negative view. Quoting was a subject on which some had little to say, but others emphatically reacted against. ’Quotes bring me out in a rash’, said one, or, again, ’bloody daft!’. Others again held that quoting was not in practice widespread. ’I don’t think your average person quotes much at all’ was one assessment, ’teachers, preachers and the like do though’, or, from another

I’m not sure if I quote very much in everyday life. It’s something I associate with prepared speeches and talks or the days when I mugged up quotes for exams and made sure to stick them all in so that the examiner would think I’d read widely (MO/S2207).

10More sweeping still was a part-time writer’s assessment:

I am not aware of quoting people… I asked a few friends, and none of them set any store by what other people said, nor could they recall hearing anything worthy of remembering or repeating! (MO/K798).

11A number felt that others might quote but it was not something they did much themselves: ’I’m not a person that spends a lot of time quoting others’, ’I am aware that I do occasionally quote but I do not make a habit of it’, or, more specifically, ’I leave it to the wife’. Older or widowed commentators sometimes said they had little occasion to quote since they no longer interacted much with others, while another dismissed it with ’I prefer to say something original’.

12Many however reckoned that they and others did indeed quote – but often without being aware of it. Again and again people commented that ’I suppose when I think about it, I quote almost every day’, ’I hadn’t quite realised it before, but I do use quite a lot of quotations in general conversation and so does the rest of my family’, or ’Quotations do creep into my conversation – rather more than I thought, in fact’. A housing officer noted that until asked about it

I didn’t realise how often myself and others do quote in day to day speech. From films, songs, poems, scripture, Shakespeare, speeches, advertising, nursery rhymes and even quoting other friends own catchphrases (MO/S3750)

13while a housewife who began ’I don’t consciously quote as such…’ later added that over Christmas ’I had found myself saying: ”I’m all behind like the donkey’s tail”, ”It never rains but it pours”, ”What did the last little black boy die of?”…’. The school teacher who thought she didn’t quote much until her husband contradicted her then gave an elaborate account of quoting from comedians, catchphrases, Shakespeare, Churchill, and long-departed family members.

14Many hesitated over what counted as quoting or pointed out that certain ’quotations’ were now embedded in the language. ’I am not conscious of ever using quotations but I suppose I must do from time to time’ wrote an ex-civil servant (Fig. 2.1), instancing Shakespeare lines or sayings like ’Time and tide wait for no man’. A young man on a factory production line who didn’t think he quoted much went on ’I could be wrong. It’s easy to pick up bits of language without noticing’, while the administrator who started off ’I would have said that I don’t quote much’ then reflected that

the problem with making such a statement is that so many well-known English quotations (the Bible, Shakespeare, other literature) have been subsumed into the language and we hardly recognize them even as we’re saying them, except as a faint echo or a kind of diction which is not our normal speech… So I think it would be more truthful to say that I do quote (and misquote) a lot, but that most of the time I don’t realize I’m doing it (MO/B3227).

15This subterranean dimension seemed widely accepted as one of the complexities of quoting. It came through too in general comments like the social worker’s conclusion that most people probably quoted without realising it, and, from a retired film editor,

I think most people quote (and recognise quotes) in a generally casual way, often without knowing or caring particularly about the source of the quotation, or its original sense, or its accuracy – or even the fact that it may be a quotation in the first place (MO/H1541).

16Other commentators were confident that people did indeed quote, and knew they were doing so. ’We all do it! Probably Adam and Eve did it’. Many cited their own practice: there were many comments along the lines of ’I use quotations a lot’, ’I have a particular interest in quoting and quotations’, ’I frequently quote other people’ or

Quoting from others is something I do – and I do it when they express something brilliantly and succinctly that I could only do in an unwieldy or less accurate or efficient or especially less meaningful way (MO/H2418).

17Another opened with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ’By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote’, going on ’What a delightful topic to be given to write about!’. A large number were explicit both about their own quoting and its practice by others. They had no difficulty in producing examples, often with extensive commentaries.

18What they quoted however turned out to be quite varied. Some had wide interests. One housewife in her 60s described herself as ’often’ using quotations, both spoken and written, from ’Family sayings, Newspapers, Biblical notes. Literature quotes, and Reference books’, also quotations like ’Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’ when speaking to her daughter. A retired nurse quoted ’Shakespeare (from school), French poetry (ditto), the Bible (if appropriate), and jokes or quips from other people’, and a middle-aged customer service advisor was ’always quoting’

from my Gran, my stepfather, (both long since dead), co-workers, my favourite authors, especially aphorisms I come across that I like. Jonathan Carroll is particularly adept with these. I also like the philosophy of M, a co-worker: The secret of a happy life? ’Low expectation and a high boredom threshold’ (MO/D3157).

19Others were more selective. For another ex-nurse it was ’the Bible or prayer book’, while an administrator repeated stories but not proverbs and rarely quoted people; she tried to tell jokes but was ’magnificently awful at it’. A retired headmistress didn’t quote ’other people’ but was eloquent about proverbs and favourite Shakespeare quotes. By contrast the middle-aged commentator who had found quotations creeping unawares into her conversation continued

I don’t mean literary quotations; the ones that get used again and again are almost exclusively of the ’family joke’ type, and usually amusing in some way (or intended to be)… I [don’t] use ’formal’ quotations very often (MO/G3423).

20A retired company executive was emphatic that he didn’t quote Shakespeare ’because I’ve never had much time for him’ or the Bible ’because I’ve never studied it’. A 25-year-old secretary agreed:

When speaking I would say the main things I quote are conversations I’ve had with other people, and items I’ve seen on the TV, in the paper or on the internet. I can’t imagine I would ever quote the bible (as I wasn’t brought to follow a religion I have trouble keeping up with even the Lord’s Prayer). I generally don’t have a good memory for things like jokes and poems, so again I’m unlikely to quote these (MO/D3958).

21Another explained she spent little time quoting others, but that if she did it would be ’conversations I’ve had with someone, newspaper headlines, or family sayings, or… from books’. A retired shop keeper was interested in ’clichés’ but ’not erudite sufficiently to quote authors, the bible or poems’. Different yet again was the middle-aged staff recruiter who strongly objected to most forms of quoting but was devoted to sources from Tai Chi and Hare Krishna, or the widow in Fig. 2.2 who started off ’Being only half educated and a late developer, I can’t say I quote the Bible, Shakespeare or poems’, but then went on to write out a much-loved poem.

Fig. 2.2 An 85 year-old widow’s quoting.
Commentator from Carmarthen (MO/F1560).
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

22Certain forms seemed to have attained special status. These were quotations associated with formal educational settings and with ’literature’, epitomised above all by Shakespeare. There were continual references to the Agincourt speech from Henry V or Hamlet’s ’To be or not to be… ’, and the 37-year-old PA was far from the only one to have ’lots of Shakespeare flitting round my mind’. It was Shakespeare’s words that were most often used to exemplify quotations embedded in our language – ’a rose by any other name’, ’out out damned spot’, or (again) ’to be or not to be’.

23The Bible was also continually mentioned. Biblical quotations came from both Old and New Testaments, including many used in everyday language or re-expressed in proverbial-like form: ’Do unto others…’, ’Love your neighbour as yourself’, ’Love your enemies’. They came amply into church settings of course but were also common in other contexts. Quotations from other religious traditions were mentioned too, if less often than the Bible. For the Hare Krishna devotee, for example, the original sources had special value and exact quotation from the authorised translation a matter of high importance.

24Also highly regarded were ’the poets’, meaning those seen as part of the literary heritage, often traced back to school experience. Favoured examples, usually just excerpts but occasionally the whole poem, included Walter de la Mare’s ’Farewell’, W. B. Yeats’ ’Innisfree’, Tennyson’s ’Charge of the Light Brigade’, A. E. Housman’s ’Land of Lost Content’, and (more recent) Philip Larkin’s ’This Be the Verse’. Though less often mentioned than ’the poets’, certain prose writers and orators were accorded a high position, among them such variegated but persistently popular figures as Oscar Wilde, Omar Khyam, Winston Churchill and George Orwell, above all his ’All animals are equal…’.

25Individuals also had their idiosyncratic personal tastes, illustrated in such contrasting responses as:

I use ’Lay not up for thyself… treasures on earth’ from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and ’Gentlemen of England’ speech from Henry V. I use Brian Clough (soccer manager now sadly died) all the time. He said ’it only takes a second to score a goal’. I use it at work... It means keep your concentration
(middle-aged teacher from Manchester, MO/G2818).

I have some personal favourites such as Dylan Thomas’s ’Do not go gentle into that good night’ and Julian of Norwich – the medieval mystic ’All will be well and all manner of things will be well’. There are fantastic bible quotes of course which can comfort at times of sadness and stress: ’Lo though I walk through the valley of darkness I shall fear no ill’ for example
(part-time classroom assistant from Brighton, MO/S2207).

’See the happy moron he doesn’t give a damn, I wish I were a moron, My God! Perhaps I am’... Jerome K Jerome ’Love is like the measles we all have to go through it’… Woody Allen had a rather risqué quote on masturbation ’don’t knock it, its sex with someone you love’. From his film ’Annie Hall’. Another favourite is from the ’Water-Babies’; ’When all the world is young lad, and all the trees are green, and every goose a swan lad, and every lass a Queen. Then hey for boot and horse lad, and round the world away. Young blood must have its course lad, and every dog its day’
(retired motor trade director from Tyne and Wear, MO/G3655).

26Others remembered quotations from their childhood. An illustrator talked fondly of his grandmother’s recitations. At bath time he and his sister would be regaled with Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’, recited by heart, while her party pieces included a long segment from Act 4 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s King John, delivered gravely and dramatically, giving a different voice to each of the parts in the play… in a broad Lancashire accent’.

27Quotations from these literary and religious sources were almost all in English. One 59-year-old did mention puzzling people with Latin quotes, and there were occasional examples in other languages based on particular personal experiences. But non-English quotations were rare – a contrast to some generations ago when classical languages might well have figured large.

28These somewhat elevated categories were far from the only sources for quoting. It was striking how often songs were mentioned. There were lines from currently popular groups, rock lyrics, folk songs, music hall songs and many others. Some who claimed not to quote much still relished their capacity to song-quote. ’I never learnt much poetry’, said one, ’I am more likely to remember lines from songs’, or, again, ’I like to sing songs in voices of favourite singers who sang them, usually just a first line’. A middle-aged journalist found it handy, if his opinion was challenged, to recall ’I’m a rock standing out in an ocean of doubt’ from a Pink Floyd song while a 25-year old noted that on the factory floor

Song lyrics and things from the TV are the most usual things to be heard quoted. More often than not, it’s ones from the past as well, when the other people at work were young… People try to quote song lyrics if it is tied into what has just been said (MO/E2977).

29Topical sources were plentifully drawn on, as with the part-time administrator who quoted from ’newspapers I have read, either headlines or articles I have read within the paper… [and] things that I have heard on the television or radio’ (MO/S3372). Films and broadcast programmes were likewise frequent sources – ’we all quote from popular programmes’. People quoted catchphrases from recent television shows, comic effects from radio, imitations from Monty Python, and phrases from the popular ’Catherine Tate show’: ’Everywhere you hear people saying ”Yes, but no, but yes, but no, shut up!” and ”Am I bovvered?” ’. A part-time registrar used quotes from film and television like ’Oh dear, how sad, never mind’ (from ’It ain’t half hot mum’) and ’Get it? Got it. Good’ (’The Court Jester’). Or again, from a housing officer

I quote from films mercilessly. My boss has brought salmon mousse in for lunch today and I am finding it incredibly difficult to resist doing my impression of the grim reaper from Monty Python’s ’The Meaning of Life’. God save you if you sit down to watch a comedy classic with me; Monty Python, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, or almost any musical. I’ll have half the lines out just one beat ahead of them on screen… In fact I possibly quote irritating lines more often than ones I love. Currently ’I love to dance. I’m a dancer’ in the ridiculously Anglified tones of Nicole Kidman in the Chanel No 5 advert, is a big favourite. ’Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed... ’ in the creamy, dreamy, makes-me-want-to-be-sick voice of Andi MacDowell at the end of ’4 Weddings and a Funeral’ is a well established classic! (MO/S3750).

30A young researcher used quotations from the TV show ’Blackadder’ as their irony often suited her mood: ’quoting helps to release some of the frustration I feel if I’m irritated with meetings, or with people being unnecessarily dogmatic or bureaucratic’. Newspapers and the internet were also much tapped, catchphrases for people to both quote and react to. ’Hug-a-hoodie’, ’weapons of mass destruction’, ’shock and awe’ – all in one way accepted phrases but at the same time pronounced, often ironically, with the special ring of someone else’s words.

31Jokes were occasionally treated as a kind of quotation. They were seldom attributed to a named author – except in the joke-fiction of phrases like ’My mother-in-law told me… ’, or ’Last night at the pub someone said … ’. Jokes were in fact often explicitly ruled out. ’No jokes’ was a recurrent comment, ’I always forget the punch line!’. But that presenting jokes was practised by some did come through both in the small number who did mention them and – from another source – in a 2007 ’joke survey’ of Britain.8

32’Proverbs’ on the other hand took a major place. Not everyone liked them and a number said they never used them (’Proverbs? Can’t think of one’). But they were a known category, often pictured as having somehow come down from the past rather than having named originators. Some formulations were taken as unambiguously ’proverbs’, others more marginal or debatable.

33Some commentators cited just a few, others fifty or more. The most commonly mentioned, often in abbreviated form, were ’A stitch in time [saves nine]’ (the most popular of all it seemed), ’Too many cooks [spoil the broth]’, ’More haste less speed’, ’Many hands [make light work]’. Other popular ones included

Takes all sorts [to make a world].
Better safe than sorry.
Beggars can’t be choosers.
Least said [soonest mended].
Grass is always greener [on the other side of the fence].
A rolling stone [gathers no moss].
A still tongue keeps a wise head.
A bad workman always blames his tools.
For the sake of a nail…
Once bitten [twice shy].
Practice what you preach.
Actions speak louder than words.
It’s an ill wind [blows nobody any good].
Look before you leap.
A bird in the hand [is worth two in the bush].
You can lead a horse to water [but can’t make him drink].
What’s sauce for the goose [is sauce for the gander].
There’s many a slip [’twixt the cup and the lip].

34Other examples again were brought in more tentatively, as perhaps more recent and thus not fully ’proverbs’:

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Talk is cheap.
Cheer up, it may never happen.
A moment on the lips a lifetime on the hips.
Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Love don’t last, cooking do.

35Less familiar were those associated with a particular family or locality:

Better belly bost [burst] than good stuff be lost! [of food on plate].
Never throw away your dirty water before you have some clean.
Shy bairns get naught.
S/he looks just like a monkey dressed up in blotting paper.
Inoculated with a gramophone needle [of someone chatting too much].

36People had differing views about what should be included. Family sayings (discussed below) often overlapped, so did some more literary sources, exemplified by the ex-teacher who wrote

I do use proverbs occasionally, as a sort of shorthand. These are often Tolkien’s own, as I have read and reread his books since I was given ’The Hobbit’ for my 9th birthday. ’The job as is never started takes longest to finish’, ’There’s no accounting for east and west, as we say in Bree’, ’Go not to the elves for counsel for they will say both no and yes’, ’I am right - when I know anything’. All useful (MO/H2410).

  • 9 For a recent overview see Mieder 2004a, 2008, also further on proverbs in Chapter 6 below.

37In the extensive paroemiological literature proverbs are predominantly presented in an approving light.9 The observers here however were notably ambivalent. Though only a few went so far as to describe them as a ’piece of old hokey’, ’setting my teeth on edge’, and ’Ugh, no – ghastly’, there was often a strong strain of disapproval. Proverbs were unoriginal clichés that simply stated the obvious, ’old-fashioned and contrived’, ’a lazy way of expressing a feeling or a view’, or ’so ”Common Sense” and conservative they could have been said by Sancho Panza’.

38This hostile reaction was sometimes traced to ’smug’ establishment wisdom and copybook morality at school, or the remembered discomfiture of being at the receiving end. As an ex-librarian explained ’we had to learn [proverbs] off by heart at school and I think I associate them with repression! My mother had some very irritating maxims’. A retired executive commented feelingly

Saying ’A stitch in time saves nine’ to someone who has just had a minor mishap is not always accepted as friendly. And ’A bad workman always blames his tools’ can sound unsympathetic when one’s wife says something went wrong with the cooking (MO/B2240).

39People particularly resented having proverbs quoted at them. ’Too annoyingly righteous most of them’ was one verdict, not least ’every cloud has a silver lining’ when you were in trouble. ’Proverbs always gave me the creeps when I was a child, and even now I find their hard-eyed peasant wisdom unsettling. It’s probably because people tend to quote them at you just after you’ve come a terrible cropper’ (MO/M3190). An illustrator now in his 60s reminisced about his disciplinarian paternal grandmother,

She brought us up on a series of quotations and sayings. She had lots of them, covering every situation that occurred in our daily lives. She administered them with cod liver oil in the morning. ’If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, she would say if we failed some task. ’A stitch in time saves nine’, she would utter as she sewed a button that had come adrift. ’Cleanliness is next to Godliness’, she stated as she scrubbed our necks with a loofah until they felt raw. ’Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action’, she would say as she sent us off with a message. ’This is neither fishing nor mending nets nor paying the old woman her nine pence’, if we were wasting time. ’Neither a borrower nor a lender be’, if we wanted an advance on our pocket money. There were many, many more of these sayings too numerous to mention here, nearly always punctuated with ’This was my mother’s motto and mine as well’ (MO/L2604).

40Others were more positive and said they often quoted proverbs. Older commentators – though not only them – regarded them as still-valuable wisdom from the past: ’hoary quotations’, ’couthy sayings’, ’pearls of wisdom’ or ’handed down from my parents’ generation’. Proverbs were regularly wielded by parents and teachers. ’I do use proverbs on occasion to underline a point to the children’, said a teaching assistant, while a housewife in her 50s commented that they began turning up in her language after she became a parent: ’a useful shorthand… good advice in a form that would be easy for them to remember’. An ex-shop manager now quoted to her children the very proverbs her parents had used to her:

If they were called names at school or bullied, they were quoted ’Sticksand stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me’. If they were trying too hard to complete a task they were told, ’Don’t run before you can walk’, or ’Don’t cross your bridges before you get to them’, if they were looking too far ahead of things. My parents were always quoting proverbs to me. My favourite one from Dad was, ’If you can’t say good about anyone, don’t say nothing at all’ (MO/H260).

41Family sayings were often mentioned. There was no clear division between these and other quotes, if only because almost any example can be adopted within a particular group as peculiarly their own. They overlapped with proverbs, sometimes sharing the claimed proverbial features of brevity, balanced structure and wit. The difference was only relative and several commentators pointed to the difficulty of distinguishing them. Quotations claimed as family sayings perhaps tended to be more personal, idiosyncratic, even private than other examples, less in the public domain, sometimes (not always) more fleeting, and usually unwritten. More important however was the personal resonance with which such sayings were imbued: usually attributed to a named individual, delivered in a special tone of voice, associated with some known interpretation, person or event, and practised among intimates entitled to share their usage.

42Thus a number of what others might classify as ’proverbs’ were claimed as family quotes. Here for example is one list of ’some odd quotations that the family have used in childhood and hence myself to my sons’:

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
No news is good news.
Less haste more speed.
Beauty is within. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
It never rains but it pours.
Make sure your underwear is clean in case you get run over.
Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.
Mother nature knows best.
It takes a real man to cry.
They are alligator tears put on for show.
There is a sun behind the clouds, whatever the weather.
You need to be in my shoes before you judge.
Cold hands, warm heart.
Eat your carrots to make your hair curl.
Isn’t your hair lovely, you’ll never need a perm.
Many hands make light work.
Cheer up, it may never happen.
Don’t walk under the ladder, it will bring bad luck.
Let’s sing and raise the roof.
Laugh & the world laughs with you, cry and you’ll '77eep alone.
What goes around, comes around (MO/F218).

43A 59-year-old commented that she was uncertain whether her ’mother’s sayings’ were her own or quoted from someone else. Her annotated list included, among many others,

  • ’like a witch on a windy night’ (used when someone or something, e. g. the cat, is unaccountably restless or fidgety)
  • ’we’re none of us perfect’ (Just what it says, but always said in a rather commanding tone, usually when someone has done something frightful)
  • ’limb of Satan’ (a term of chastisement, obviously, but usually used about children or misbehaving pets in a fond kind of way)
  • ’black as Hell’s crickets’ (meaning very dark, or filthy dirty)
  • ’when in doubt, act’ (most similar sayings say the opposite, i e, when in doubt, don’t)
  • ’what’s needful isn’t sinful’ (usually said when somebody does something slightly embarrassing, like breaking wind)

44She continued ’I find myself using most of these remarks from time to time; in speech rather than in writing, and always prefaced by ”my mother used to say ” or ”my mother always said”’ (MO/F3409).

45The point seemed to be the personal association rather than whether the wording was well-known. Thus ’There’s nowt so queer as folks’ may have been in common currency but for one writer it came from his mother and before that her mother. For another ’Be careful for what you ask the Gods lest they give it you’ was a well-known proverb, but as a family saying it had become just ’Be careful’ since ’everybody knows what’s coming next’. In one family ’Boil egg’ meant take three minutes away from the problem, while ’grandmother’s specials’ included ’God sends the children and the devil sends the mothers’ (a rude comment on her neighbours) and, from another grandmother, ’everything happens for the best’ – ’I like quoting them because they were full of wit as well as wisdom’.

46A saying attributed to a particular individual was sometimes passed on through successive generations. ’There’s so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill behoves any of us to talk about the rest of us’ was an admonition one woman had from her mother who’d learned it from her mother – ’a quote that has accompanied us as we have grown up and which I am very fond of’ (Gillespie 2007). A young warehouse operative expanded on another quote:

In the early 60s, my grandmother was watching Cliff Richard on television with one of her sisters – both were in their 80s. Auntie May made some remark about the bulge in the singer’s tight trousers. My grandmother was shocked, even more so when Auntie said ’Well, I’ve still got my feelings, you know’. This has gone down in the family annals – and I hope I’m able to follow her lead when I’m her age! (MO/C3167).

47Or again

My father frequently quoted his father, a Northampton eccentric, given to sudden rages, strong Unitarian and teetotaller, so these stretch back to the turn of the last century. They reappear, even today, dredged up from the past, in conversation with my sister, brother, cousins – remembered by each one in his/her own unique fashion!

Sister Mary walked like that
Pitter-pat, pitter-pat, pitter-pat, pitter-pat,
Then came Uncle, stout and fat
Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.
Uncle Thomas, wooden leg O... io... io
But I just walk like this yew know Oh, oh, oh!

48Sung with actions of course. OK not PC today (MO/N1592).

49Other quotations were linked to particular settings or events. For one it was her paternal grandmother’s sayings which had become ’legendary’ in the family, while for another ’Look before you leap’ was always associated with her brother falling into a stream. Another connected his mother’s ’Stock’s as good as money’ with the 1940s when, like other wartime housewives, she never passed an opportunity to keep her cupboard supplied.

50Local connections added to the evocative quality. Cockney slang was recalled affectionately, as was an aunt’s Irish-inflected ’The divil eyes you’ when you were thinking of doing something naughty (Gillespie 2007). An ex-sales assistant in Yorkshire quoted the tongue-in-cheek ’Yorkshire tykes motto’

See all, hear all, say nowt (nothing).
Eat all, sup (drink) all, pay nowt
And if tha (you) does owt (something) for nowt
Allus (always) do it for thisen (yourself)

51followed by other dialect sayings beloved in her family like ’Ee’d eat t’oven if it t’were buttered’ if someone looked hungry, or, of someone not very clever, ’If ’is brains were dynamite they wouldn’t blow his cap off’ (MO/W571). A Glaswegian recalled his mother’s local quotes, like ’If they fell into the River Clyde they would come out with fish in their pockets’ (some people have all the luck), and ’My arse and parsley!’, a favourite of his aunt’s, used ’when she thought you were having her on’.

52Quotes within the family did not always use publicly approved language. A retired shop manager recalled her mother’s ’best’ quote as ’It’s stuck like shit to a blanket’, still used by the next generation where ’”mum’s one” always raised a laugh’. Another phrase was only ’when I’m talking to my partner, because it skirts the borders of acceptability… not repeatable here, unfortunately!’. Similarly with the ’My arse and parsley’ saying – ’my aunt… was really a very polite woman so you definitely knew you were in trouble when you heard her say this!’

53Quotations could act as a private currency between intimates. A married pair’s unflattering descriptions of people’s appearance were quoted and re-quoted between them: ’A face like a bag of spanners’ or ’like a bulldog chewing a wasp’, or, more elaborately, ’Park yer bike, sir’ of a buxom woman’s cleavage; ’If her chest is spectacular enough, the response will be ’Bike? You could park a tractor in there!’. For another pair, the emphatically pronounced ’It makes me sick’ was first heard from a father but now ’trotted out by both of us on a regular basis’. A widowed part-time librarian recalled quotes shared with her late husband

My Father in law used the phrase ’It was swimming’ which apparently his own Mother had often used to him – if he caught a cold then she would say ’It was swimming’ [that caused it]. This has become a family joke and any unfortunate situation might provoke the comment ’It was swimming’. … I suppose we used to quote things that other people had said which had made us laugh at the time. My husband invited a German friend who was teaching with him to come and stay with us for a day or two during one of the school holidays to which R replied: ’Thank you very much but I prefer to go to Scotland’ (MO/H2637).

54A quotations language could thus develop among small in-groups, pronounced and understood with overtones peculiar to themselves. Co-workers shared familiar quotes, ’student-style catchphrases’ circulated, and within a group ’particular quotations recall a certain joke or situation’. Among close friends, colleagues or family a ’common stock of ”references”… can be quickly recognised when quoted or, as is more usual, alluded to in the course of a conversation, a letter or an e-mail’. Such sayings were perhaps more short-lived than many family sayings, but at a given point clearly evocative for their co-participants. Time and again people mentioned quoting and re-quoting personal sayings among themselves, becoming, as one summed it up, ’a comforting private language and, I suppose, a kind of verbal shorthand between people who know each other well’.

Fig. 2.3 Sayings in ’our circle of friends’.
From a 61-year-old retired nurse from Derby (MO/H1836)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

55Shading into such examples were more recent sayings and conversations. Someone’s words or interchanges, whether from live or overheard conversations, or (overlapping with these) from reports in newspapers or other media, were repeated onwards by someone else, acknowledging that the words were not their own. These were more one-off than family sayings: recent reports rather than seen as originating from the past. They sometimes acquired a longer life, but many were ephemeral, suited just to particular occasions. Nevertheless they were experienced as quotes of a sort – your own voice repeating, deliberately, what someone else had said. Repetitions of passing personal remarks may seem far distant from the ’official’ quotations with which we started – and so indeed some commentators felt. But reproducing the words of others is after all a familiar pattern in both true and fictional narrative, and a familiar part of everyday living. The commentators here made profuse references to repeating conversations and recent remarks by other people. Even those who reckoned they did little ’formal’ quoting spoke of reproducing conversations – like the classroom assistant who initially envisaged quotes as something for examinations, but quickly added that she did ’repeat important conversations – what woman doesn’t – to my husband for example, to update him on family news’. A secretary was typical of many:

When speaking I would say the main things I quote are conversations I’ve had with other people, and items I’ve seen on the TV, in the paper or on the internet… The main people I quote would be co-workers. I like to get things ’off my chest’ after returning from work, and my partner has to put up with me recounting the day’s events (sometimes in great detail if something has bothered or upset me)... I say ’eeh, you’ll never guess what my Mam said’ which usually relates to news passed on from my extended family (MO/D3958).

56Others concurred, one describing herself quoting ’a conversation I’ve had with someone, or what I’ve seen/heard on the news or in the newspaper’, another remarking that ’most people fall into the habit of repeating someone who they work with’. A former newspaper editorial manager, now in his 70s, gave an extended account

Today my quoting is usually reserved for what the newspapers or television tell me, or what I hear when out and about. Everything is shared with P and she, too, keeps me informed of what she picks up in the course of the day. This is usually titbits from the shops. For example, the other day I stood in the foyer of our local supermarket while waiting for P to join me. She was at the shops in the town and I must have been waiting for some time when, suddenly, a man of about my own age came out of the supermarket restaurant and said: ’You waiting for a security job here, mate?’ P had to laugh when I told her.

57’Such are the drops of lubricant’, he concluded, ’that oil the days of older people who don’t get out and about as much as they used to’ (MO/B1654).

58Such quoting leant towards the more malleable end of the continuum between variability and fixity. Several commentators mentioned they did not always repeat exactly but reported the gist of what someone had said. Some situations however demanded verbal accuracy. Where the exact meaning was imperative it had to be repeated ’word for word’, and as a civil servant put it,

I will quote others directly, in recounting a conversation, if what they said was interesting or amusing, or when it’s important to convey their actual words (for example, when instructions have been expressed ambiguously and there may be doubt over what is intended) (MO/M3190).

59Several mentioned a professional duty to reproduce exactly what others had said, whether orally or in writing, like a social worker’s duty ’to keep clear and accurate records’ of feedback from clients and colleagues. There was the further twist that as ’an old manager of mine said (and I quote) ”if it’s not written down it didn’t happen”’.

60Not all quoting was in serious contexts. Indeed one theme was the enjoyment verbal repetitions could bring. Quoting people was a way of highlighting some expression for discussion or amusement, ’particularly if it was funny or controversial what they have said or even what they said was incomprehensible’. Mimicry and, through this, a kind of indirect social commentary could come in too. The retired newspaper manager expanded his earlier comments with

My daughter’s sister-in-laws meet daily at the home of their mother and are joined by my daughter some days. P and I have called on occasion and the two sisters-in-law are usually in full flow about some juicy tidbit they have read in the ’redtop’ newspapers. I am sure that if what they had to say was to be animated by Disney’s studios the dialogue would emerge as words as sharp as lightning strikes; words in big black capitals or quivering italics – all peppered with a veritable fusillade of exploding exclamation marks and delivered in a breath-taking crash of cymbals and kettle drums! (MO/B1654).

61These varied repetitions of others’ words and dialogues were redolent of the multivoiced dramas of everyday human interaction and at the same time a mode of commenting on them, whether with ridicule, affection or exasperation.

62What people reported themselves as quoting thus covered a wide range. And indeed one of the main things to emerge from both my own observations and those of the commentators here was the diversity of their choices. Some liked proverbs, some didn’t; some quoted conversations or people they knew, others thought that boring; some liked ’literary’ quotations and pitied those who didn’t. Others had tastes that even they regarded as idiosyncratic, like the software analyst whose propensity to quote from films was ’probably my worst habit… or most endearing feature, depending upon your viewpoint’. Some favoured television or radio quotes, others regarded these as too ’hackneyed’. Some emphasised ’famous’ quotations, others emphatically not. The sources for others’ words were multifarious, from Latin tags, famous poets, historical figures or the Bible, to ephemeral conversations or ’my husband said’, along a multiform continuum of greater or lesser endurance, crystallisation, and public recognition.

2.3. Gathering and storing quotations

63These quotations did not come from nowhere. They were not just free-floating in the air, nor were the choices among them automatic. So what were the processes by which people acquired and accessed them? This was not altogether clear, but some indications emerge from the mass observer commentators.

64Sometimes, it seemed, it was quite formalised. Many looked back to school or college as the foundation for at least some of their quotations. This could be supplemented by later reading or learning along similar lines, moulded by the earlier experience of wordings that counted as quotable. Some recalled learning by heart at school, often of quite lengthy passages. A few had seemingly remarkable memories for quoted words which they continued to augment throughout their lives.

65Some individuals had built extensive and deliberately cultivated personal repertoires. A former social worker spoke of ’all those classics learned painstakingly by heart at school, supported by poems, speeches learned later in life for specific purposes’, giving her a ’repertoire of quotations always to hand’. So too with the Lancashire grandmother’s capacity to recite Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’ and large sections of Shakespeare – in her case ’all the more astonishing because she left school at the age of ten’. For a retired teacher, quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare or the poets had become ’just part of my mind, that I don’t have to think. I’ve also liked poetry, and learned great swathes of it, and those poems come to mind’.

66But many quotations were acquired less deliberately, in the course of personal action and experience. Many commentators deplored their ’poor memory’. By this they meant, it seemed, a perceived incapacity to learn off lengthy quotations from what was regarded as the learned tradition, as in ’I only quote what I have been brought up with as a child. I have no memory for poems, Shakespeare etc’. But other institutions besides school could provide a setting for acquiring specific kinds of quotations. Work, special interest groups, playground, peer groups and religious organisations – all could be fertile sources for repeated quotes. People picked up topical catch phrases or sayings emergent in the interaction of close groups, varying at different life phases, among them quotations specific to particular localities, dialects or families.

67There was a widespread recognition that some quotations had become part of current language, known in a vague way by more or less everyone. Several also spoke of latent memories that could come to the surface when needed. A saying from ’the Bible, Buddhism or as is usual for me, a long forgotten source, just pops out of my mind’. The same image came in another’s explanation that he didn’t have a store of quotes but would just use one that ’pops into my head at the time’.

68It was noteworthy how many emphasised the past as the origin for their quotations. With topical quotes, current clichés or repeats of recent conversations this was of course less marked – one reason perhaps why some people were doubtful of their status as ’proper’ quotations. But mostly the association with the past was something to prize: a repository of wisdom, to which people could still turn today. For some this lay in the words of great thinkers and writers of the past, or in ancient (or presumed ancient) proverbs ’handed down for hundreds of years’. A former lecturer found herself quoting her parents or grandparents since ’some things remain constant… I suppose I like to quote another generation because what they said made sense to me as well as to them’. Or again

It is going to sound daft, but I always feel a connection to the wisdom of people through the ages. I know it is a bit soppy, but proverbs are a snippet of advice and a piece of truth that never changes. The meaning of things develops all of the time, but the truth remains (MO/D3644).

69A retired nursery nurse similarly commented that she had seen from books of quotations that throughout the ages people were ’quoting or handing down in stories to the future generations… just as up to date for today’s readers’, as in

’To do all the talking and not willing to listen is a form of greed’. 5th-6th century
’The secret of being a bore is to tell everything’. Voltaire (MO/I1610).

70Quotations bring people together, she added, ’we have philosophers from all races to draw on, to help understand their thinking, and get along’.

71It was not just undifferentiated ’wisdom from the past’, for many saw it through personal eyes. They recalled when they had first heard a particular quote, or traced it back to family tradition or individual named people in the past. A retired company director discussing his favourite quotes especially liked ’No news is good news’, one of his grandmother’s most used quotations: she had arrived as a Polish refugee in 1905 and though she never mastered English ’she did say this’. A retired registrar’s source was her mother (now dead), so she ’always prefaced [the quotation] by ”my mother used to say” or ”my mother always said”… It would somehow seem wrong… not to acknowledge where the words came from’. Another’s favourite quotes came from older generations of the family whose remarks ’live in our memories today and we recall them with affection’. Similarly

The person I most like to quote is my late father because he had a funny and telling turn of phrase, never entirely true but rarely wide of the mark: on Polish pronunciation compared with English, ’In English it spelled butter, pronounced ’batter’, but when you eat it, it bloody margarine!’ … I like, too, my mother, who has a more local way: about a neighbour always winning at bingo, ’She’d not get wet if she fell in dock, that one!’ … And my favourite, when as kids we asked for money for sweets, ’What do you think you’re on, your father’s yacht!’ (MO/F3850).

72The link to the past was especially poignant if the quotation came from someone now dead. There were frequent comments like ’family members, especially long departed ones, are… remembered by quoting things they said’, or quoting a dead father ’followed by ”As Dad would say”. I think it’s comforting saying things that remind us of people we love when they’re not with us’. For one writer, quoting her mother was ’a way of remembering her’ and of reminding her own children of her, while another who as a child had been bored by her grandmother’s quoting now she was dead was enjoying ’hearing her voice in my head saying these pointless little things’. Another woke up laughing one morning because

I’d been remembering my father’s words a lot the previous day (and obviously during my sleep). If you told him, for instance, that you’d had a rise at work but it wasn’t as much as you’d hoped for, he’d say ’better than a smack in the face with a wet kipper’… I still use these quotations today (MO/D1602).

73The associations were not always rosy. A 70-year-old spoke of quoting ’my grandmother (lovingly) and my mother (with exasperation)’, and a middle-aged administrator expressed his ambivalence about certain family quotations:

I am aware of deliberately quoting him [my father]. I’m not sure how genuine this is: it sometimes strikes me as a rather bogus tendency. Before he became ill, our relationship was not particularly good, and I wonder whether I am wistfully attempting to suggest to other people a closeness that did not then exist but might by now – who knows? Maternal grandmother – unhappy, unloving ’Oh, don’t bother’. Now we say, ’Oh, don’t bother,’ in a comical version of this voice; although what it really commemorates is a troubling, unsatisfactory relationship. I suppose making a joke of it exorcizes some of the unhappiness of that relationship (MO/B3227).

74Sometimes the once-hard memories were later re-interpreted in a warmer light. The grandmother who quoted harsh proverbs as she scrubbed her young grandson’s neck was by his 60s being recalled more positively.

Her strong influence prepared us for life, taught us how to be self-sufficient and adapt to any situation we found ourselves in. Even today if I’m tempted to take a short cut in accomplishing a household chore, Grandmother’s words spring to mind. ’If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, that’s my mother’s motto and mine as well’ (MO/L2604).

75The link to the past through quotations was repeatedly pictured as continuing through the generations. A retired teacher rejoiced in its ’true consistency’ when she heard her son quoting ’to his son, something that I’d quoted to him, that had been quoted by my mother’. A middle-aged administrator remembered being annoyed as a child by her Catholic mother’s ’We’re all in the dark like a Protestant Bishop’ if the light went off – but was now repeating it to her own children. Or again

We lived with my maternal grandparents when I was a child before the Second World War and I can well remember my grandfather giving my mother the benefit of his wisdom at the dinner table when I was proving difficult over a meal. He told my mother not to worry. ’Little children’, he said, winking at me, ’are like little pigs: they eat little and often’. And now I have my own grandchildren sitting at my table on occasion and I find myself quoting the self-same advice to my daughter when the little ones push their plates away (MO/B1654).

76Besides coming down through personal chains quotations were also known from being displayed on material objects. They appeared on tapestries, copybook headings, religious sites, framed illustrations. Others were in graffiti or street displays (one quoted the Belfast wall’s ’Fuck the Pope / Who would want to?’). Several writers drew attention to the current fashion for short sayings, quips and quotes on fridge magnets, ornaments, cards, doors, wall hangers, tee shirts and calligraphic displays. One childhood bathroom had had Rudyard Kipling’s ’If’ on the wall, another a framed poster for World War II with ’Keep Calm and Carry On’, which later became ’something of a mantra’ in the household.

77Some people went out of their way to record quotations for personal use or reflection. One approach was to write down occasional quotes. Others, however, had compiled extensive personal collections, to an extent that surprised me (I had thought such compilations largely a thing of the past). Several commentators said they had special places for writing down quotations that struck a chord with them, often describing these as their ’commonplace books’. An ex-sales assistant gathered quotations from calendars or the ’saying for the day’ in the daily newspaper (’soothing comforting words to help you along life’s way’), and a retired school inspector described how she wrote quotations from books or articles she had read or from radio programmes she had heard

in a kind of commonplace book where I also copy poems that I have discovered. Here are some to give you a flavour:
’A nuisance is only an adventure wrongly considered’. – GK Chesterton
’When you dine with a rich man you end up paying the bill’ – Hungarian
saying (MO/M1979).

78A man in his 70s had a ’bulging file which I have christened ”Verse and Worse”’ that he hoped to bring it out in a private publication, while a retired youth worker had for years written into his commonplace book quotations he had come across that summed up a thought or feeling ’much better than I could have done’. An ex-teacher had kept her ’Quotation Book’ since she was 9, starting from writing out poetry at school as a handwriting exercise: ’I kept my folder. This ”book” is now 5 files’. That this practice was not confined to the older generation was illustrated by the 22 year-old who kept a special book for quotations, writing down ones that ’mean something special to me, and I like to know that I can re-read them if and when I want’.

79Another source for others’ words was through locating them in places where they had already been selected as quotations. Some day-by-day diaries display a quote for each date, and most newspapers and magazines have a quotations section – a popular source to glance at in passing or sometimes draw on more regularly. Thus

A section I am immediately drawn to when I receive [my weekly news digest] each week is the section entitled ’Wit and Wisdom’. This section includes quotes that are found in newspapers during the course of the previous week. It includes such quotes as: ’The meaning of life is that it stops’ (Kafka, quoted in The Independent) and ’A man’s dying is more the survivor’s affair than his own’ (Thomas Mann, quoted in The Independent). One that I really like is a quote from Margaret Atwood, quoted in The Guardian: ’Wanting to meet a writer because you like their books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté’ (MO/L2604).

  • 10 10 This section, while relying primarily on qualitative comments from the mass observers, also dra (...)

80Then there were the printed quotations collections. These are widespread in Britain, plentifully adorn the reference sections of libraries and large bookshops, and figure among many domestic holdings. Publishers can count on large sales, the most popular collections going through many successive editions. The expectation, at least as enunciated in publicity and prefaces, is that they will be well thumbed and regularly used for reference, crosswords, inspiration, or delight, a major source therefore, one might think, for the plentiful quoting of today10

81The practice turned out more complex. On the one side, several commentators did indeed possess one or more quotations collections. The most frequently mentioned was the Oxford Dictionary of Quotation in one or another of its many editions but there were many others too. The longest list was from an illustrator and ex-academic (Fig. 2.4), but a few others also commented in such terms as

I may not use ’formal’ quotations very often, but oddly enough we do have quite a few books of quotations in the house – the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and several specialist ones to do with my partner’s field of work (he’s a writer, amongst other things). We find them very useful for things like cryptic crosswords, which surprisingly often rely on quotations – and they come in handy for audience participation in ’University Challenge’ (middle-aged voice-over artist from Hemel Hempstead, MO/G3423).

Fig. 2.4 A large collection of quotation books.
Illustrator and ex-academic from south east England (MO/L2604)
(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)

82Some not only possessed one or more collections but consulted them, in some cases frequently. One stated purpose was to check a quotation’s author or wording. Crosswords were often mentioned, so too were finding quotations for setting quiz questions, creating publicity material, ideas for stories or book titles, or a message in a greetings card or letter. People searched collections for ideas for a formal speech, a wedding or work presentation, while a long-time member of a local debating society ’inevitably’ turned to his books of quotation ’to see what greater minds than mine have had to say on a particular motion. I’m rarely disappointed’. Collections were also browsed for personal enjoyment and inspiration, as with the retired nurse who had several collections bought during her 20s that she ’would enjoy reading again and again’. Several described being led on beyond their initial purpose: ’once one opens it, it is often hard to put down – one thing leads to another’ or, in a lengthier reflection,

I now have half a dozen [books of quotations] and invariably find that when I consult them, without fail I find myself some twenty minutes or so later, several pages further on and engrossed in what others have to say about a topic which has no relevance to what I was originally searching (MO/H2634).

83All this suggests widespread active usage, and indeed this range of uses was borne out by the returns from the Oxford University Press online questionnaire on quotations dictionaries in 2006. But there was another side to it too. That same survey, completed by nearly 1500 people, found that nearly three-fifths did not own any dictionary of quotations at all. Similarly among the commentators from the mass observation panel very manyeither did not mention such collections at all or explicitly said they did not possess one. Sometimes this was because they preferred the internet; as one noted hard copy collections were unhelpful for rock lyrics and song lines. For another, published collections seemed unnecessary since ’proverbs and quotations get locked in our brains, so we don’t need books to learn them’.

84A common reaction was ’I was going to say that I don’t have any books of quotations, then checked my bookshelves, I have two!’, while others thought they might perhaps have one somewhere but could not find it or remember last using it. Those who discovered they did possess one often explained they had got it as a school prize, inherited it or received it as a free gift. It had often been a present but seldom looked at: ’still in its wrapper’, ’I wouldn’t have bought [it] for myself’, and ’it’s the sort of thing that gets given’.

85Many were in fact actively hostile to quotations collections and attributed disparaging motives to those who used them. ’To impress I should think. Politicians, poseurs, people who like to give an impression of being well read’; ’It’s a bit pretentious to look up a quotation so that you can use it when the occasion arises’; ’Surely people are capable of some original thoughts?’. Or again

I don’t own any books of quotations and I can’t really understand why people do. I suppose if you teach or are a student of certain subjects (e.g. history, literature) then you would use one. Also, I suppose people might like to learn quotes to impress like-minded people at dinner parties and such like (25 year-old secretary, MO/D3958).

86Such reactions rightly remind us that the sheer fact of publication does not in itself prove usage or close acquaintance. It seemed that quotations collections were often regarded as prestigious and reputable valuables –good as a gift and (perhaps) symbol of the learned literary culture, but not of much direct use to the possessor. It is true that most commentators recognised the existence of such collections – in itself worth noting – and for some people they clearly did play a part in their active engagement with quotation. But for most people they certainly could not be assumed to take precedence over sources like the memories built up from school and later reading, material displays, individually constructed commonplace books, and echoed voices from the past charged with personal meaning.


1 Mass Observer MO/B1898 (for further information see following section, also Appendices).

2 Mass Observer MO/W3816.

3 On the ethnography of speaking and writing together with the general approach to methodology in this book see Appendix 1.

4 Apart from a few periods abroad my home has been in Milton Keynes since 1969. My earlier research in the locality chiefly focused on amateur musical activities and, later, on personal narratives (Finnegan 1989/2007, 1998).

5 5 The Oxford University Press Modern Quotations Dictionaries Survey was conducted as part of the preparation for the 3rd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (2007). It consisted of an online questionnaire which drew nearly 1500 respondents in 2006.

6 See Appendix 2 for more information about members of the panel, also for further

7 Throughout this and the following chapter all quotations, unless otherwise identified or clearly from some other source, are from members of the Mass Observation panel consulted in autumn 2006. Longer quotations, but not all short phrases, are attributed to specific authors under their code numbers (e.g. MO/S2207); for further detail on the individuals see Appendix 2.

8 Conducted by the BBC and the Open University ( (24 Aug. 2009)); see also earlier Mass Observation directives (, esp. Spring 2002 on ‘Having a laugh’.

9 For a recent overview see Mieder 2004a, 2008, also further on proverbs in Chapter 6 below.

10 10 This section, while relying primarily on qualitative comments from the mass observers, also draws on the 2006 OUP survey.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 2.1 Example of extract from a Mass Observer comment.Response by an ex civil servant from Staines (MO/B2605)(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 63k
Légende Fig. 2.2 An 85 year-old widow’s quoting.Commentator from Carmarthen (MO/F1560).(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Légende Fig. 2.3 Sayings in ’our circle of friends’.From a 61-year-old retired nurse from Derby (MO/H1836)(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 45k
Légende Fig. 2.4 A large collection of quotation books.Illustrator and ex-academic from south east England (MO/L2604)(Copyright © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive)
Fichier image/jpeg, 145k


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search