The Magazine

He Said What?

The quotable and the laughable.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.