The Volokh Conspiracy

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The New Yale Book of Quotations Is Published (Post 2 of 3)

It's the Oxford English Dictionary of quotations.


The just-published New Yale Book of Quotations, by utilizing state-of-the-art research tools, can with some justification be described as the Oxford English Dictionary of quotations. Like the OED's approach to words, the NYBQ employs extraordinarily powerful searching of online historical texts to identify the most famous quotations, trace them to their original sources as far as possible, and record those sources precisely and accurately. The saying "Justice delayed is justice denied" illustrates the radical improvements in our knowledge of quotation origins that are yielded by these computer-assisted methods. Below is the second part of the NYBQ's introduction:

The science of compiling a quotation dictionary consists in exhaustively identifying the most famous quotations, tracing them to their original sources as far as possible, and recording those sources precisely and accurately.  For this book, novel techniques were used in pursuit of those standards, highlighted by extensive computer-aided research.  An enormous number of historical texts are now available in electronic form.  By searching online databases one can often find earlier or more exact information about famous quotations.

The very well-known maxim "Justice delayed is justice denied" was until recently listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a "late 20th century saying."  When British newspaper databases are searched, however, it becomes abundantly clear that the great Prime Minister William Gladstone used "justice delayed is justice denied" in an important speech about Ireland on March 16, 1868.  Other searching for The New Yale Book of Quotations unearthed usage of these words in The Weekly Mississippian (Jackson, Miss.), November 23, 1838.  Moreover, Edward K. Conklin of Honolulu emailed the NYBQ's editor with the results of his own online sleuthing: the formulation "Justice delayed is little better than justice denied" was used in an 1815 book, and in 1646 a book was published with the title Another Word to the Wise, Showing that the Delay of Justice, Is Great Injustice.

Like the "justice delayed" example, many famous and interesting quotations have no definite original source.  Other quotation dictionaries may give vague citations such as "Remark" for such quotes; The New Yale Book of Quotations, however, attempts to give the earliest findable occurrence.  Usually the citation takes the form "Quoted in," followed by the oldest known book or article or other publication in which the words in question appear:

Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

Quoted in Wit and Wisdom of Mae West, ed. Joseph Weintraub (1967) [listed in this book under Mae West]

If there is substantial reason to doubt the validity of the attribution by the oldest source, the form "Attributed in" is used:

640K [of computer memory] ought to be enough for anybody.

Attributed in Computer Language, Apr. 1993 [listed in this book under Bill Gates]

Powerful online and other research methods make it possible to trace quotations to the most accurate sources.  Some notable quotations misattributed by earlier quotation dictionaries include the following: "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings" (actually by Ralph Carpenter, not Dan Cook); "Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket" (Andrew Carnegie, not Mark Twain); "Go west, young man" (Horace Greeley, not John Soule); "War is hell" (Napoleon, not William Tecumseh Sherman);"There ain't no such thing as free lunch" (Walter Morrow, not Milton Friedman); "Winning isn't everything—it's the only thing" (Red Sanders, not Vince Lombardi); "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" (Buck Purcell, not Harry Truman).

The following were some of the most helpful of the electronic tools, presenting images and searchable text of billions of pages of publications, that were searched regularly to help determine quotation sources, wording, and frequency:

  • ProQuest (newspapers, periodicals, and other materials from the eighteenth century to present)
  • (newspapers from the eighteenth century to present)
  • (newspapers from the seventeenth century to present)
  • America's Historical Newspapers (U.S. newspapers from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries)
  • Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (U.S. newspapers from the nineteenth century)
  • LexisNexis (newspapers and periodicals from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries)
  • JSTOR (scholarly journals in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, 1665 to present)
  • Early English Books Online (primarily British books, 1473-1700)
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (primarily British and U.S. books from the eighteenth century)
  • America's Historical Imprints (U.S. books, 1639-1820)
  • Google Books (tens of millions of books scanned from large libraries)
  • HathiTrust (millions of books scanned from large libraries)