05 October 2011

In Context

by Robert Lopresti

Follow up to my lament below. I have found a way to put the hotlinks in bold.
Beloved readers;

You may have figured out that Blogger is giving us some problems. This is mortifying for me because I was the one who suggested using it as a platform. Here's the latest kink: I put a number of hotlinks in this article and they are there and working but they aren't underlined as is usually the case. You have to run a cursor over them to find the damned things. THEN the underline appears. I have no idea why. So think of it as a fun game! Or don't. Grumble.

Back at our Old Location I may have mentioned three or four hundred times in passing that I am a reference librarian, and on occasion I have pointed out a favorite reference book or two.  Today's volume is a special treat for me because it is a government document. That's right, it was compiled with your tax dollars, so thanks very much.

Respectfully Quoted was edited by Suzy Platt and published by the Library of Congress in 1989. And this is cool, you can search it full-text online. (Sorry about the annoying ad that pops up.)

Briefly, RQ is a book of quotations compiled by a branch of the Library of Congress called the Congressional Research Service. So what makes it different from all the other dictionaries of smart-babble?

Pithy party

Well, let's think for a moment about how such books are compiled. There are two main methods. Either some expert reads a whole lot of books and finds a line he likes, says "Ooh! That's pithy!" and writes it down, or some expert reads a whole lot of books and finds quotations that other people have used, and writes them down.

But this book was compiled differently. You see, the CRS works exclusively for congresspersons and their staffs. So each of the lines in this book was asked about by a representative or a senator.

Well, what lazy devils. Why did they bother a bunch of librarians? Why didn't they just look it up in Bartlett's like everybody else?

You see, this is what makes the book unique. Let's say you are a senator preparing a speech. You find the perfect quotation, witty, to the point, perfectly making your case while devastating your opponents. You make your speech to wild applause.

The next day a reporter calls to ask why you had chosen to quote a statement that had originally been made in defense of Stalin's purges. At that point you know this is not going to be a good day.

If you are a politician you want to know the context in which something was said before you quote it. You don't want to use a term like final solution, modest proposal, or even crusade without knowing what they mean to some people. (Of course, you may also use quotes to pass a message to some of your listeners, which is sometimes called a dog whistle. Some people claim Michelle Bachmann is a master of this technique.) It would also be nice to know that the quote is genuine, and not something made up entirely or attributed to someone who didn't say it. And that's what makes Respectfully Quoted unusual. Each quotation has been checked back to its source and often provided with a context.

Who said?

All of these fall into the category of "attributed to but we can't find them among their works."

"Elect us and we shall restore law and order." Often attributed to Adolf Hitler.

"We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Attributed to Ben Franklin.

"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time." Attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

"England and America are two countries separated by the same language" Attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

“The finest Congress money can buy.” Mark Twain did not say it. He did write the following: "I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world." He intended to say this at a Fourth of July gathering in England but the US ambassador, General Schenck, decided that after his own wonderful speech no more were needed and cancelled Twain's. What a peach Schenck must have been to work for, huh?

Surprising sources

"Fifth Column." General:Emilio Mola used the term in the Spanish Civil War to describe those inside Madrid who would help the four columns of attackers outside.

"Founding Fathers." Apparently comes from that great speaker Warren Gamaliel Harding.

Odd but true

"These are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed." Who originated the famous motto of the mailman? Would you believe Herodotus? He was describing the messenger service of the Persian King Xerxes.

"You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?' I remember Ted Kennedy at his brother Bobby's funeral quoting Bobby quoting JFK with very similar words. But they come from George Bernard Shaw, who put them in the forked mouth of none other than Satan.

"I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet." A boiled-down version of a a parable by medieval Arabic poet Sadi.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Attributed to Mark Twain, but Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli.

"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Vince Lombardi says he didn't say it. Some people say he did. Others says Red Sanders did.

"If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum." - Sir Arthur S. Eddington.

It's a fun book to browse. But don't quote me.


  1. Rob, thanks for letting us know about this source for quotations. I read Bartlett's for pleasure now. In the past, I've used it to locate quotes to use as hooks for magazine articles (and before that, for term papers). I'm especially fond of lines attributed to Mark Twain and one of my all-time favorites: "There's a sucker born every minute"--P. T. Barnum

  2. It's me again, Rob. I ran the curser over the article and could not locate the links, so I Googled Respectfully Quoted and went right to what I wanted, but, of course, that was only one of the links you'd planned. Until the kink is worked out, why don't we simply type in the address where the link would take the reader?

  3. Rob,
    I didn’t have a problem with the hotlinks. They turn red and were underlined when I passed my cursor over them.

    The only problem I’ve had with blogger is the absence of a box to check to receive emails when new comments are posted.

    Thanks for the new reference source.

  4. Rob, a beautiful article, plus I always enjoy your humor.

  5. Rob, a beautiful article, plus I always enjoy your humor.

  6. Love it! Hope this posts!


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