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Words from the Wise


Concise Dictionary of Proverbs
Oxford University Press, 1998
333 pp, $19.50
ISBN 019-280084-1

The New Beacon Book of Quotations
By Rosalie Maggio
Beacon Press, 1996
844 pp, $32.00
ISBN 0-8070-6782-0

The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations
Oxford University Press, 1998
482 pp, $49.50
ISBN 019-860103-4


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 sound."

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 accomplices."
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, 1932

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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