Why is the practice of quoting others so popular? “The short answer,” wrote British author and broadcaster Nigel Rees in the preface to his 1989 book, Why Do We Quote?, “is because other people have said things memorably and well in such a way that we would rather repeat their phrases than mint new ones of our own.”
Rees goes on to pose another question: “How is it,” he asks, “that a group of words acquires quotation marks around it, visible or invisible on the page, audible or inaudible in conversation?”
In his Book of Science and Nature Quotations, professor and author Isaac Asimov offered this answer: “There are five billion people on Earth,” he wrote, “and I should guess that at any given moment one or two billion of us are speaking. And I should further guess that virtually nothing anyone says is memorable….There are times, however, when someone turns a phrase that seems so clever or so apt or so enlightening or so true, that the statement flies from person to person and gives pleasure at each passage. The statement becomes a ‘quotation.’”
I’ve been collecting quotations for 35 years now, and a significant number of the two million entries in the more than 570 volumes I own are indeed memorable. In future posts, I’ll be presenting lots of examples, and you can judge for yourself how memorable – or not – they may be.
As to why we quote, the late great mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers had a different answer. With tongue in cheek, she wrote: “I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking.”