For over 70 years, Oxford University Press has been collecting, sourcing, researching, and authenticating quotations on an international scale. In doing so, it has created the rich language resource from which the Oxford University Press ‘family’ of quotations dictionaries derives.
‘Who said that?’ is the most frequently asked question relating to quotations; it is closely followed by the more general ‘What's been said about this?’ Oxford Reference provides the tools for answering both kinds of query, in a series of dictionaries compiled from our Quotation resources.
What is the one quotation that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?
'Nothing matters very much and very few things matter at all.’ This wonderful line is the work of Arthur Balfour, who trained as a philosopher and ended up as prime minister in 1902. It is a great line to bear in mind when you are facing Life and its Challenges and everything seems to be getting on top of you.
Which historical events or figures featured in the Dictionary have most influenced your study of quotations?
If you are compiling a dictionary of humorous quotations there are four giants you can't avoid: Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, from the other side of the pond, and P. G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde from the British Isles. One or other of them appears in nearly every entry – even, on occasion, talking about each other. Their best lines are wise as well as witty and, often, unexpected. Oscar Wilde is the guy with the greatest number of entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations and he deserves to be. I have never committed murder—largely, I think, because Wilde's sound advice was passed on to me when I was young: ‘One should never do anything one cannot talk about after dinner.’
Which figure in history would you most like to invite to a dinner party? What would you ask him/her?
It has to be William Shakespeare. How come we know so little about him when he knows so much about us? I want to find out more—and think of it: after dinner with Shakespeare I'd be able to include some Shakespeare quotations in the Dictionary's next edition. . . Wouldn't that work wonders for sales? (If Shakespeare is otherwise engaged, I'd be very happy to entertain Helen of Troy to dinner. It would be wonderful to set one's eyes on the face that launched a thousand ships. Then again, Dorothy Parker has something to say on this.
There are general tips on searching on the Help pages, but the following may be particularly useful when searching for quotations.
You can do a basic search by entering a few words from the quotation in the Search box and restricting the results to those in the subject area Quotations (using the left-hand pane). This works well if the words are not too common, but is less useful for words like ‘man’ or ‘love’.
If you know an exact phrase from the quotation, enclose it in speech marks (e.g. “to thine own self be true”), and search in the same way. This will only find entries containing the exact phrase, so remember that a small error, such as searching for “to thy own self be true” will mean that the quotation is not found.
If you find your initial search has returned too many possible results and you think you know the name of the author of the quotation, you can use Narrow Your Choices in the left-hand pane. Click on [+] Add Row, and use the drop-down menu to add the name of the author as Entry Title.
Oxford Dictionaries defines a quotation as ‘A group of words taken from a text or speech and repeated by someone other than the original author or speaker’. The words ‘other than’ are crucial here: a quotation is a saying that other people think worth repeating because it is well expressed – whether it is beautiful or funny, wise or incongruous.
Most usually, a quotation is associated with someone famous and, introduced with the words 'as X says', calls up the support of a distinguished writer or thinker for our own ideas. This association lends the quoter an enhanced authority, and adds weight to their argument. Indeed, seventy years ago Bernard Darwin suggested in the Introduction to the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘The hard-pressed writer in turning over these pages may find and note many excellent phrases…whether to give a pleasing touch of erudition or to save the trouble of thinking for himself’.
Words from long ago may be quoted in a new context, as when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, quoted the words of the fourteenth century mystic St Catherine of Siena at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton: ‘Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire’.
Alternatively, an idea may be around in a general way, but it may take the impetus of a speech by a well-known figure to crystallize it in the public consciousness, as American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did for the ‘known knowns…known unknowns…unknown unknowns’.
Quotations can represent words in any form: books, newspapers, journals, letters; broadcast interviews; plays, films; online publication, emails, tweets; or simply one person talking to another face to face. We face a daily torrent of words, just a few of which may lodge in the public mind to be remembered and quoted days, weeks, or years later.
Oxford Quotations has a team of readers looking out for quotations and allusions as they are used in daily life. In earlier decades, these potential new quotations were written on slips of paper and stored in specially constructed wooden boxes. Now, material is captured online, and held in an electronic database which is the major source of material for new quotations dictionaries and for new editions of existing bestsellers.
In the first instance, we look at the new quotations in our database, and select those which are best-known, and those which represent new or unusual ideas. To qualify for inclusion in a dictionary, a saying must be being quoted. It does not matter whether it is being quoted approvingly or being disagreed with, what matters is that people think it worth repeating.
We want to include the most popular quotations in a field, but we also want to represent a range of viewpoints. For example, to a selection of quotations on Education, we added Nelson Mandela’s positive ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ and Thoreau’s less enthusiastic view ‘What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook’.
Once we have established that a quotation is sufficiently interesting, we have to make sure that it is genuine: that the wording is correct, and that the supposed author really did say it.
Once we have identified a potential new quotation as worth pursuing, it has to be authenticated. We want to be sure that the wording is correct, that the supposed author really did say it, and that no-one else said it earlier.
In the past, this meant digging around in books and newspapers, and most research was done in the darker recesses of libraries. The Internet has made a huge difference in this respect: with many works searchable online, and with digitized newspaper archives, some forms of search are much easier. For example, years ago we sent a researcher to look for a quotation from Thomas Jefferson ‘Nothing gives one person so great advantage over another, as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances’. With all the thousands of pages of Jefferson’s numerous works to look through, he failed to spot it. But once Jefferson’s letters were searchable online, it was instantly found.
Other quotations are not so straightforward. We first picked up ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’ attributed to the Chinese general Sun Tzu, and it is also sometimes attributed to Machiavelli, but the earliest instance that it has been possible to find is in the 1974 film The Godfather: Part II by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, so they are credited as its authors.
Some quotations have a complicated history. David Cameron is widely associated with the words ‘Hug a hoodie’, but it was not he who originally said them. They were the words of the Labour politician Vernon Coaker commenting on the advance text of a forthcoming speech by Cameron.
Before suggesting a new quotation, please make sure that it is not already included in one of our dictionaries by using the Search box (see tips on searching for Quotations). If you would like to make a contribution, you can use this form. Every new quotation is read and considered, but we are not able to respond personally to individual contributions.
There are some single-word quotations in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Usually these single words are interesting because of the context in which they were said. Examples are the reply of the American general Anthony McAuliffe to a German demand for surrender at Bastogne, Belgium, in December 1944: ‘Nuts!’, or the diary entry of the French king Louis XVI for 14 July 1789, the day of the storming of the Bastille: ‘Rien [Nothing]’.
There are few surprises here, with poets and other writers leading the field. In terms of representation in Oxford dictionaries of quotations, the most prolific authors are the Authorized Version of the Bible, and Shakespeare. Both have contributed to the English language to such an extent that they dominate both literature and popular culture. Then there is inevitably a huge gap before we find a select literary group of Tennyson, Milton, and Samuel Johnson, followed by Alexander Pope and George Bernard Shaw, and next a gang of poets: Lord Byron, T. S. Eliot, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, and William Wordsworth. Oscar Wilde and the first non-literary figure Winston Churchill are in the same bracket.
The top American writers Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson emerge next, along with Blake, Shelley, W. H. Auden, and Charles Dickens, and then women’s voices are heard at last, led by Jane Austen and George Eliot (though we do not know how many of the contributions of Anonymous, the third most quoted, may be of female origin).
The most quoted Frenchman is Voltaire, and the most popular classical author is Horace. The most quoted scientist is undoubtedly Albert Einstein.
Recordings exist of some of the quotations in our dictionaries, for example original speeches and poets reading their own work. A selection of links to websites featuring such quotations is provided in the eighth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. There are also links to spoken versions of Beowulf in Old English and Chaucer in Middle English, so that you can hear those quotations as they originally sounded. Read the alphabetical list of the links.
In 1915 there was an initial suggestion for ‘an Oxford Dictionary of Poetry Quotations (not foreign quotations)’, to be based on ‘Oxford texts and the N.E.D. [now the Oxford English Dictionary]’. The idea was not immediately followed up, and it was not until the 1930s that the project got under way. An assessment in a letter of 1931 highlighted especially familiar quotations from foreign languages and ‘modern quotations that have not yet got into the books’. Consideration of the collection of material came with the warning that ‘Even in English we shall have to guard against things quotable, as apart from things commonly quoted.’
In conclusion, then, the editors were looking at a dictionary of quotations which would have a primarily literary base, and which would include quotations from major writers likely to be quoted in English by the literate and cultured person. The importance of the American market was somewhat grudgingly acknowledged (‘We must consider the Americans lovingly’), but in reality this was more likely to mean American authors regarded as having honorary status in English literature, rather than a true reflection of American culture.
By the end of the 1930s, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was nearing publication. One problem, however, remained: the promised Introduction from the Vice-Chancellor had not materialized. In May 1941, Oxford University Press appealed to the writer Bernard Darwin, noted for his knowledge and love of quotations. Would Darwin write, and moreover write very quickly, the Introduction? If he would come over to Oxford as soon as possible he could be provided with a quiet room, the proofs of the book, and the factual Preface. They would 'gladly and thankfully' pay him fifteen guineas if at the end of six hours Darwin could produce an Introduction.
Darwin may have been flattered by the terms of the appeal ('You are the man... It's a great book, and we want a great Introduction'), or touched by its frankness ('We really are in a hole'). Whatever his reason, he accepted, and provided the missing Introduction. The Dictionary was successfully published in 1941, with the first printing of 20,000 copies being exhausted a month after publication.
The book was, inevitably, Anglocentric, a feature reinforced by the arrangement of material. The quotations were organized in such separate sections as Authors Writing in English, Holy Bible, Anonymous, Quotations from Punch, and Foreign Quotations. Opening the pages of that first edition is rather like walking into a traditional study lined with leather-bound volumes.
How well do you know your world leaders? [quiz]
Do you know who said what? Test your knowledge of world leaders and their retorts with our quiz.
How well do you know your quotes from Down Under?
We’ve gathered a selection of famous lines said by Australians and New Zealanders to test your knowledge – do you know who said what?
Meet the experts, with links to their titles on Oxford Reference
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations audio links, including original speeches, poets reading their own work, or works in Old English