Shapiro on quotation dictionaries

Fellow ADS-Ler Fred Shapiro has taken the occasion of the appearance of the new (18th) edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (edited by Geoffrey O’Brien) to consider the nature of quotation dictionaries in internet age — in a thoughtful review (“Just glad to see me?”) in the Times Literary Supplement of 2/1/13. While commending the new Bartlett’s in several areas, Fred finds defects in its thoroughness and its accuracy, defects shared with some other reference works (the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, in particular), defects that are in principle remediable in the internet age.

Background: Fred is the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations (1993) and, more important, of the Yale Book of Quotations (2006) and (with Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder) of The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012); more on these two below.

Fred sets the scene:

Samuel Johnson called classical quotation “the parole [password] of literary men all over the world”, and readers used traditional quotation collections to gain access to the best writing or to the meanings of foreign phrases or to verification of wording and sources. Contemporary culture believes that good information about quotations is readily obtainable from internet searches. Somewhere between these two attitudes the modern quotation dictionary finds its place.

The touchstones are (1) thoroughness of coverage and (2) accuracy “in attributions of authorship and precision of sources and wording”.

Fred lists a number of notable omissions from the new Bartlett’s, including the “or are you just glad to see me?” quote alluded to in the title of his review (attributed to Mae West, but without any, um, hard evidence; see my posting on the quotation).

On the accuracy front, Fred observes that Bartlett’s and the two Oxford dictionaries mentioned above fail to take advantage of the recent explosion in research on these things. But

On the other hand, the Oxford English Dictionary has led in the use of online searching of historical text collections for historical lexicography. It has provided a model or partial model for the Yale Book of Quotations and the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. The DMP, in particular, employed such databases as ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Newspaperarchive and Google Books to trace the earliest available occurrence of each proverb in print or other media.

It is easy to view the internet as an enemy of scholarly reference, one that fosters a democracy of citation in which the most carefully researched source and the most apocryphal attribution are equal in the eyes of Google or Wikipedia. The other side of the online coin, however, is that dictionaries of quotations can now use dazzlingly powerful searchable text collections to gather information undreamt of by past compilers. For quotations with definite literary coinages, improvements may be minor, but for the many sayings with vaguer provenances, we are able to dig deep into the collective culture, perhaps coming close to actual oral origins, and to create a very different historiography of quotations.

Fred hints here at the possibility that we can begin to systematically study the diffusion of quotations the way we study the diffusion of linguistic features in general.

But then there’s the question of what users are looking for in a dictionary of quotations and how they can best be served:

The new dictionary of quotations may threaten the idea of organizing quotations by authors. The more extensively one searches the historical record, the more one finds that there is nothing new under the sun, and that earlier occurrences or precursors of familiar expressions can almost always be found, continually pushed back to ever-more obscure roots as more publications are digitized. The truly well-researched compilation thus risks being swallowed up by the author section titled “Anonymous”. That would be undesirable for a popular collection serving literary purposes, a collection that should not be purely a work of historical scholarship and that should, for example, sometimes print the best-known or most eloquent version of a quotation [what I’ve called in my writing on snowclones as the version of a quotation that is “fixed” and then comes to serve as the source of a snowclone template] rather than only the oldest version. Nonetheless, if a book of quotations is to be an accurate reference work, it must come to terms with and employ the new research tools.



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