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."

Journalists will be amused to hear what Craig Brown, who took over Auberon Waugh's column for the Daily Telegraph, makes of their profession: "Journalism could be described as turning one's enemies into money." Since Brown's enemies have included Bill Clinton, Jackie Collins, and Harold Pinter, he has never been without the means for handsome remuneration. Those in law enforcement will find G.K. Chesterton's take on other enterprising members of the community interesting: "Thieves respect property," Chesterton insisted. "They merely wish the property to become their property so that they may more perfectly respect it."

Ned Sherrin, the late BBC broadcaster and raconteur who died in 2007 after 20 years on the radio, organized his dictionary around alphabetized topics. The aristocracy, birds, crime, debt, epitaphs, fame, golf, God, humility, intellectuals, journalism, lies, management, old age, punishment, taxes, the universe, wealth, and wine are just a few of the topics the dictionary covers.

Say you are an atheist scheduled to speak before a group of evangelicals. You look for the topic God and--voilà, here is your opener, compliments of Clarence Darrow: "I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose." Or you are a convicted inside-trader and need small talk for your first day in the jug. Go to Wealth and help yourself to this from George Best, the sybaritic footballer: "People say I wasted my money. I say 90 percent went on women, fast cars, and booze. The rest I wasted." Or you are an overworked psychiatrist on a psychiatric ward full of people intent on doing away with themselves. What can you say to these desperate people to make them reconsider? Go to Hope and Despair and borrow this from Earl Wilson, the gossip columnist: "If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments." Or you are out on the town and your wife interrupts the festivities by telling you that you are making an ass of yourself. If you consulted this dictionary before going out, you would have Dean Martin ready at hand to silence the censorious woman: "You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on."

The Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is ideal for those who might want to have their quotes in a more portable format. Small enough to carry in a coat pocket, it nonetheless contains over 400 pages of practical wit and wisdom. Susan Ratcliffe, a discriminating editor, includes topics that Sherrin omits, including Manners, which yields some instructive gems. Any woman, for example, who has ever found herself tongue-tied in the society of her social superiors will be grateful to Lewis Carroll for dispensing this helpful advice: "Curtsey while you're thinking what to say. It saves time." Or this from William Hazlitt: "The art of pleasing consists in being pleased." Or this from Evelyn Waugh, whose own manners were not always the most emollient: "Manners are especially the need of the plain. The pretty can get away with anything." Under Housework she quotes something from St. Teresa of Avila that may not have occurred to many scullery maids down through the centuries: "God walks among the pots and pans."

Ratcliffe provides many quotations that illuminate public life. Here, for example, is a line from Churchill describing what we ought to expect from our politicians: "It is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen." Something Gerald Ford once said should give pause to anyone angling for a bailout: "If the Government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have." Joseph Biden will appreciate John Adams's assessment of the vice presidency: "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." He may also appreciate this from Lord Birkett, one of England's most voluble advocates, who loved haranguing captive juries: "I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking," he told a festive gathering. "But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain that they are still going." And here is something to give comfort to those who may not exult in the Age of Obama: "I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective," Ulysses S. Grant observed, "as their stringent execution."

Edward Short is a writer in New York.