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I Have Nothing to Declare Except my Genius

May 7, 2012

Citing Sources

Back in the day, a big fat Bartlett’s occupied a prominent and easily accessible location on my bookshelf. That’s Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for the uninitiated, arguably the best known and most authoritative English language collection of quotes. My edition weighs in at just over 1,400 pages. It was first published in 1855 by John Bartlett, who ran the University Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts (“Not a big college town.” This is Spinal Tap). Bartlett’s was the reigning king of quotations for 150 years, until the Internet ascended the throne in the new millennium (“The King is dead. Long live the King!”). As far as I can ascertain the last hardcopy version of his book was the 17th, published in 2003.

My fellow linguaphiles understand the pleasure that leafing through a book of quotations can convey. But alas, even when combined with its shelf mate, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1,100 pages), Bartlett’s pales in comparison to the efficiency and the efficacy of a simple Internet search. The Internet is not, however, an authoritative resource. When using quotes in your writing, be sure to cross-reference/double-check anything you dig up from the Internet to avoid propagating misinformation. Be especially wary of attribution. People love to ascribe sayings to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and others when it ain’t necessarily so (Porgy and Bess, lyrics by Ira Gershwin). If in doubt, you are better off not citing an author at all, or attributing the quote to anonymous/unknown. Or you could simply cite it as a “saying” or a “proverb”.

At the risk of duplicating the efforts of untold others, or worse, spreading some misinformation of my own, here is a short list of some of my favorite quotations:

  • There are two kinds of people in this world, those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t! —Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction (I’m the second kind)
  • In the long run, we’re all dead. — John Maynard Keynes, Economist
  • I have nothing to declare except my genius. — Oscar Wilde, quoted in “Oscar Wilde” 1918 by Frank Harris Oscar. Reputed response to a customs inspector upon his entering the US. I wouldn’t advise trying this today as you’re likely to get strip searched.
  • “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” — Oscar Wilde
  • Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language —Henry James, American novelist and critic, quoted in Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934
  • The only true measure of success is how much time you have to kill.
  • I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure…
  • “Cast down your bucket where you are!”  — Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech
  • “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” — attributed to Heraclitus, On the Universe, Greek philosopher (540 BC – 480 BC). More common is the updated version, “”No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It is also thought to be an Native American proverb: “You can never enter the same river twice.”
  • Be better than anyone faster & faster than anyone better. (How to succeed in business or just anything, I suppose. A.J. Liebling’s original: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.”)
  • A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be. — Wayne Gretzky (Another saying attributed to the Great Gretzky that I like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”)
  • Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment. — Robert Benchley
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clarke
  • Life is a sum of all your choices. — Albert Camus
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