Accessibility links

Breaking News

The More Quotations Change, It Seems, the More They Remain the Same

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: our guest is Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

RS: Six years in the works, this newly published book contains about thirteen thousand entries from all time periods and regions -- but with special emphasis on twentieth century and American quotations.

AA: Fred Shapiro says he applied "state-of-the-art research techniques" to try to avoid a common problem: misquotations.

FRED SHAPIRO: "One example of a popular misquotation is in the 'Star Wars' movies, maybe the key line in the whole trilogy is when Darth Vader says 'I am your father.' But people remember that as 'Luke, I am your father.'

"Another example is, William Tecumseh Sherman [a Union general in the Civil War] is quoted as saying 'war is hell.' In fact, the closest he ever came to that is he said, 'There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.' He also said, 'I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.' And that's always remembered as: 'If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.' It's a more eloquent way of speaking it. So misquotations are actually improvements usually in the language, the tone or the pacing of a quotation."

AA: "And so now let's talk about modern quotable Americans. If I said who's the most quotable American that immediately comes to mind, who would you think of?

FRED SHAPIRO: "My favorite, I think, of contemporary quotable people is Yogi Berra. He's so quotable that lots of things he never said get attributed to him, and he's become a kind of beloved icon of quotability. There's also the great comedians of the twentieth century: Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, W. C. Fields, Mae West. These are some of my favorite modern quotable people."

RS: "You mentioned the great baseball player Yogi Berra, could you give us some of his notable quotables?"

FRED SHAPIRO: "Sure. 'If you come to a fork in the road, take it.' 'It's deja vu all over again.' 'You can observe a lot by watching.' He has explanations for just about all of them. Like, for example, one of his quotes was 'It gets late early out there.' It sounds absurd, but he has explained that what he meant is that it's difficult to play left field in Yankee Stadium in late fall when the shadows creep up on you and you had a tough time seeing the ball off the bat."

RS: "What do you think these quotes say about who we are as Americans? How do we get closer to who we are as Americans by understanding a quote by, say, Yogi Berra?"

FRED SHAPIRO: "Well, first of all, these kinds of popular quotes from non-literary figures like Yogi Berra, they're expressed in an idiomatic language. So I think it helps people to get the rhythm of the English language and some of the slang they may use. But it also, on a very deep level, I think the quotations of a country express the preoccupations of that country, the patterns of thought. I think American quotes are different, for example, from British quotes because they're more informal; they're more satirical in their humor, rather than, maybe, British humor may be more sedate."

RS: "Do you see that quotes evolve over time or the way our nation changes through the quotes? -- "

AA: "I mean, people talk about the 'sound bite age' now. Are quotes getting shorter and more sort of 'on message,' as the political 'spin' people call it?"

FRED SHAPIRO: "I can give two contradictory answers. One is that, the one thing you're struck by if you really study quotations is 'there's nothing new under the sun' or 'the more things change, the more they remain the same.' That the same kinds of political and religious questions, philosophical questions that preoccupied people thousands of years ago still preoccupy them today. But I do think you hit upon something that in the political realm there is this strong tendency to go toward short slogans. So I think that's something that has changed over time."

RS: Fred Shapiro is associate director of the Yale Law Library in New Haven, Connecticut, and editor of the new Yale Book of Quotations. By the way, he cites the Book of Ecclesiastes as saying "there is no new thing under the sun," but notes that it's often quoted as "there's nothing new under the sun."

AA: And the nineteenth century French writer Alphonse Karr gets credit for "The more things change, the more they remain the same." And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address never changes. It's still

RS: And our segments are all archived at With I'm Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.