Words from the Wise
Concise Dictionary of Proverbs
Oxford University Press, 1998
333 pp, $19.50
The New Beacon Book of Quotations
By Rosalie Maggio
Beacon Press, 1996
844 pp, $32.00
The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations
Oxford University Press, 1998
482 pp, $49.50
Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan
"Fine words butter no parsnips"
That may be so, but they certainly can accomplish other things.
The above proverb is gleaned from Oxford's Concise Dictionary
of Proverbs, one of a trio of fine word collections. In the
vein of quotation collections, the impressive tomes of 20th Century
quotations and quotations by women join the ranks of other books
narrowed down in some way to a specific field. All are useful in
crowning a talk, catching the reader's attention (note the parsnip
reference above!) or simply copying out and taping above one's computer
for an inspirational (or acerbic) lift during the day. Each of the
books reviewed has its strengths and weaknesses to consider when
looking at the already crowded shelf of "quotable collections"
The Concise Dictionary of Proverbs is probably the least
useful of the bunch. While it certainly is interesting to know that
"When the furze is in bloom, my love's in tune" first
appears in a variant in 1752 in Poor Robin's Almanac, the
practical application of that knowledge for the layperson is somewhat
obscure. Also, too close a reading of this book and you will find
yourself on the receiving end of stares from your loved ones, as
you pepper your speech with the most hoary and hackneyed of clichÉs.
And you know what they say
"empty vessels make the most
The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations has a bit
more going for it, although it falls prey to a common irritating
habit of quotation books, namely organizing the quotes by author
and not by subject. I am rarely looking for some words of wisdom
from the mouth of Ed Murrow, but I may certainly be looking for
a comment on the responsibilities of democracy.
"No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his
Of Joseph McCarthy, 1954.
The absolute delight of this book is found in a few special sections
of quotes grouped together. Sayings and Slogans, Film Lines,
Advertising Slogans, Misquotations, Catch-Phrases, Official Advice,
Newspaper Headlines and Last Lines
If this is dying, then I don't think much of it. Lytton Strachey,
The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women does group itself
by subject, and although it is not exactly a comprehensive work,
being restricted to women's words, it has something to say for virtually
every occasion. It is also cross-indexed by name, so when looking
for that perfect comment from Gertrude Stein, you can easily lay
hands upon it.
What is the answer?
Then, what is the question? Gertrude
Stein's last words, 1946
If the question is are these books worth picking up, I would say
that the two collections of quotations would make admirable additions
to any bookshelf. As for the Dictionary of Proverbs, although
certainly amusing, is probably best reserved for the student of
language development, or those like myself who have a genuine desire
to speak like a wizened old graybeard dispensing wisdom over a pint
of ale. And remember,
"There are more ways of killing a dog than choking it with
butter." How true.
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