Meta-quotes, Quotes about Quotes and the Creation of Quote Genres

One of the oldest ...

'the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne' --- Geoffrey Chaucer's delicately perturbed 14th century rendering of the genuinely classical 'ars longa, vita brevis.' It touches a new idea, more personal less Platonic.

One of the newer ...

Captain Kirk: "Since all of you crew members performed so inefficiently today, there'll be no liberty at Starbase Seven."
Voice: "Give me liberty or give me death!"
Kirk: "Who said that?"
Voice: "Patrick Henry."


These suggests the investigation of a curious (and possibly new) genre: quotes about quotes. Examples are bountiful, and, if this genre has not already been developed, then it is a bibliographer's dream!

A search for "quotation" turned up twenty seven. These leave me hungry for lesser known examples. If you have have a candidate, let me know.

An ancient "quote on quote" from Seneca: "I shall never be ashamed to quote a bad author if what he says is good."

Genre Quotes: The Leading Example "Like my Pappy told me ... "

One of the orator's oldest tricks is to attribute a sly observation to someone else, often Mom or Dad. This device was used by Howard Baker when ducking an awkward question at the Japan National Press Club (10/05/01) :

Ambassador Baker: I am tempted to tell you a story that will not bear translation. But I will try. And that is my father was a great lawyer. And when I first started practicing law as a young man many years ago, he admonished me after an argument that I made to the jury, "You should always guard against speaking more clearly than you think." The truth of the matter is that I do not know the answer to that. And if I say one more word about it, I will tell you more than I know. So I respectfully decline to answer.

As we have noted, the quote apparently originates with Niels Bohr, but Baker's attribution to his father certainly adds charm.

The Absolute Classic "My Daddy Told Me ... Story"

On the day when I left home to make my way in the world, my daddy took me to one side.

“Son,” my daddy says to me, “I am sorry I am not able to bankroll you to a large start, but not having the necessary lettuce to get you rolling, instead I'm going to stake you to some very valuable advice.

One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken.

Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear.

But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you're going to wind up with an ear full of cider.

Sky Masterson, the good-looking street smart gambler in Guys and Dolls. (The quote was used most recently by Richard Zeckhauser: Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable, Berkeley Electronic Press, 2006.)

Two Modern Favorites

The "Pappy told me" genre is large and well recognized. You could write a book on them, especially if you found a good illustrator. Here are two of my very most favorites:

"Father told me that if I ever met a lady in a dress like yours, I must look her straight in the eyes." --- Prince Charles

"Thomas Jefferson once said, 'We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.' And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying" --- Ronald Reagan

Fatherly Advice Gone Bad

"However, to relate a personal example, let me tell you the only bad advice I ever got from my father: 'Son, don't bother to learn typing, soon enough you'll have a secretary to do that!' " ---- David Aldous, from his delightful essay on the "The Top Ten: Probability and the Real World."

Transformations of Quotations: Parable Inversion via the Leavitt Transform

"If I teach a man to fish, I have a job for a day. If I give a man a fish, I have a job for life." --- Richard MacDonald.

This provides the leading case for a whole new genre. Take any proverb and rewrite it from the perspective of the Peter Drucker mantra:

"The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer."

Getting the Quote (and the Context) Right

More often that one might easily imagine, the quote we "know" is not the one that was originally written or originally said. The classic example is "Play it again, Sam," which neither Bogart nor Bergman ever says in Casablanca.

This "problem" with quotes is addressed nicely at

Colin!s Movie Monologue Page sometimes helps. The full monologue is often marvelously richer than the tag line that one may recall. Check out Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth!" See if you agree.

Everyone knows the Mae West quote: "When choosing between two evils I always like to take the one I've never tried before." Is this what she really said? There is a recent NY Times piece that deals with quotes and how they get modified through repeated quotation. I'll put up a link to this piece shortly.

Deliberate Misquotes (very Postmodern)

"I think it was Robert E. Lee who said, “It is well that the Humor section is so terribly hard to find, lest we laugh too much.”" --- Jack Handey writing in the NYTs

For Future Research?

"I consider that I understand an equation when I can predict the properties of its solution, without actually solving it.''  ---P. A.M. Dirac.

This is one of those quotes that one finds attributed to many famous physicists. There is "definitely" a version in one of Feynman's books, though I've not chased it down. I thought it was in "Volume I" in the first discussion of the wave equation, but that was wrong. I may use this example as a test case.

More Sources: An interview with Fred Shapiro

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