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Quotations

Who Is Quoted?

When compiling a dictionary of quotations, the first aim is to include material about which a question is likely to be asked. This means that we pay particular attention to quotations which we know from our monitoring of the language to be in the public mind.

Who, when, where...?

Quotations can come from any source, from the Bible and Shakespeare, to Bart Simpson. ('I always have a quotation for everything - it saves original thinking' - Dorothy L. Sayers). Famous quotations are sometimes deliberately alluded to: at the Democratic Convention in 2000, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg evoked the memory of her father John F. Kennedy in her assertion that it was her generation's turn to prove that 'the New Frontier was not a place in time but a timeless call'.

Many striking sayings echo the expression of earlier ideas and ideals. In 2007 Barack Obama said ‘The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice’, alluding to one of Martin Luther King’s great sermons from 1968: ‘We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ But this in turn harks back to a speech by the American preacher Theodore Parker in 1853: ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe: the arc is a long oneā€¦ And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.’.

Sometimes a news story will highlight words from the past: in 1999 the discovery on Everest of the body of the climber George Mallory, lost on the mountain in 1924, reminded the world of Mallory's declared reason for climbing Everest, 'Because it's there'.

On other occasions, public interest in a quotation may be signalled by a letter to a newspaper, a reference in a broadcast, or simply by an enquiry to Oxford for one of our readers.

A single instance of use is interesting, but we are aware that everyone has their own personal stock of quotations. In the last few years, the existence of the Internet has allowed us to test the currency of a quotation. It is not uncommon to find that a quotation which is not yet included in a dictionary has already found a place on a number of personal websites.

Voices from past and present

Choosing material from so wide a range is what gives our books their diverse and entertaining range - and lends support to Winston Churchill's comment in his autobiographical My Early Life, 'It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations'.

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