For over 70 years, Oxford 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 ‘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.
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Meet the Experts
All the Quotations content in Oxford Reference is created by recognized experts and is subject to a rigorous editorial process. Our trusted authors and editors are the reason Oxford Reference can answer with authority. Meet our Quotations experts here.
What is the one quotation that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?
One of the new items in the latest eighth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is Albert Einstein’s praise of ‘the holy curiosity of inquiry’. It’s an excellent motto for anyone encountering quotations (especially on the web, where apocryphal attributions can swiftly go viral). When you read or hear the words ‘as X said’, always be ready to question – did they really? And where? As Rudyard Kipling’s mongoose would have put it, ‘Run and find out.’ It’s satisfying to know just why the 1916 assertion by the American minister William Boetcker that ‘You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong’ is so often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. And it’s always wise not to be overconfident in our abilities: Niels Bohr reminds us that ‘An expert is a person who has found out by his own painful experience all the mistakes in a very narrow field.’
Which is the most fascinating entry in the Dictionary, and why?
Can you pick just one? Each time you revisit the book something catches your eye…but at the moment the most tantalizing for me is the saying often attributed to Edmund Burke, ‘It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.’ In 2009 it headed a poll for ‘favourite quotations’, but it has never been found in his writings. (Although he said something like it, as did John Stuart Mill.) What is fascinating to me about it is that although it’s now hugely well known in slightly varying forms, it doesn’t really surface until the 1950s (and then on the American political scene). Where did it come from? There must be an underground link still to be discovered.
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?
That a ‘misquotation’ is just wrong. Misquotations are often more than mistakes, and far more interesting. Many of them are quotations on the move, becoming part of our general vocabulary. We reach for them as a kind of shorthand through which we can make reference to a person, an event, or a particular situation. The caption of a cartoon by Bob Thaves was actually the source for a saying attributed to the dancer Ginger Rogers, that she did everything her partner Fred Astaire did, but also ‘backwards and in high heels’. But it has become a useful way of expressing the achievement of a woman who has excelled in what was thought of as a man’s world. When you discover that something ‘wasn’t really said’ by a particular person, it’s usually worth digging a little deeper. Where did it come from? And why do people use it?