The Magazine

He Said What?

The quotable and the laughable.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Oxford Dictionary
of Humorous Quotations

edited by Ned Sherrin

Oxford, 576 pp., $45

Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

edited by Susan Ratcliffe

Oxford, 496 pp., $15.95

Fans of truly funny writing, the sort that makes you laugh out loud, will naturally look askance at The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.

After all, to quote Samuel Johnson, "Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment." Yet there are some genuinely funny things in this collection. There is this from Peter O'Toole, drawling in that Anglo-Irish lilt of his: "The only exercise I take is walking behind the coffins of friends who took exercise." And this from Christopher Fry, who wrote all those forgotten verse plays in the 1940s: "After the age of 80, you seem to be having breakfast every five minutes." Or this from Voltaire, on being asked to renounce the devil on his deathbed: "This is no time for making new enemies." Or this from Saki: "People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die." Or this, one of my own favorites, from Joan Collins: "I've never yet met a man who could look after me. I don't need a husband. What I need is a wife."

But most of the entries here incline to the humorous rather than the funny. For example, there is this from the late Queen Mum, after her daughter had accepted a second glass of wine at lunch: "Do you think it's wise, darling? You know you've got to rule this afternoon." Or this from Alan Bennett's play, The Madness of King George III: "The asylums of this country are full of the sound of mind disinherited by the out of pocket." Or this from John Kenneth Galbraith: "Meetings are a great trap. However, they are indispensable when you don't want to do anything"--surely an observation which anyone familiar with the insides of conference rooms can corroborate.

There are a number of arresting bon mots from novelists. Edgar Wallace, the crime novelist, gets his own back at those who might have regarded him as infra dig: "What is a highbrow? He is a man who has found something more interesting than women." The English novelist Rose Macaulay gives advice that too many Britons and Americans probably do not need: "You should always believe all you read in newspapers, as this makes them more interesting." The Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen reminds the Irish of their blessings: "Where would the Irish be without someone to be Irish at?"

The Irish are not the only people who could benefit from this resourceful book. Hard-pressed reviewers, especially those asked to review books with any learned content, will know intimately the truth of Winston Churchill's observation that "it is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations." Not especially inspired after-dinner speakers will be grateful for the book's scintillating epigrams, though Dan Quayle managed well enough without any help from quotations when he mused before the United Negro College Fund: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind, or not to have a mind. How true that is." (For those who may have forgotten, the motto of the fund is "A mind is a terrible thing to waste.") Students will also want to ransack this book. As Dorothy
Sayers once confessed: "I have a quote for everything--it saves original thinking." Attorneys, especially those condemned to argue before implacable judges, will enjoy the aplomb of F.E. Smith, one of Churchill's boon companions.

JUDGE: I have read your case, Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.

SMITH: Possibly not, My Lord, but far better informed.

Moralists will find edifying swag throughout the dictionary, especially this from H.L. Mencken: "Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice." Poets worried whether their work has any relation whatever to the real world will be consoled to hear Philip Larkin admitting to Barbara Pym: "The notion of expressing sentiments in short lines having similar sounds at their ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon." Those, however, worried about actually reaching an audience may want to skip over what the old New York Sun columnist Don Marquis had to say on the subject: "Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."