Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nation's favourite, and other quotations

This is what happens to villains who quote TS Eliot. See Martial heroics.

I propose a Nation's Favourite Blogger poll. The choices are:
  1. Me
  2. Julie Heyward
  3. Felix Grant
  4. Dr C
Votes by end of September, when the winner will be announced as Nation's Favourite Blogger.

That would be a pretty pointless and self-serving exercise; but, writ large, this is exactly what happens in any number of promotional "best of X" pseudo-polls in which some caucus prepares an arbitrary subset of X (over lunch, for all we know); the public gets to choose from that subset; then the result is announced and hyped as if it had been a free choice from all X. For instance, it happens regularly with the BBC's Nation's Favourite Poet polls, and it always raises the question of how much polls are responsible for defining the favourites they purport to be discovering. Was Jenny Joseph's "Warning" really that popular before being brought into the limelight by inclusion in the 1997 poll? Or as Alison Flood asks in the Guardian, Must the nation's favourite poet really be Kipling?.

I would have hoped Oxford University Press to be above all that, but no. From Waterstones:

Vote for the most memorable quote

To celebrate the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations - the nation's favourite quotations dictionary for over 65 years - we've teamed up with OUP to help find the most memorable quote. We've created a list of significant quotes taken from each decade since publication (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties), along with a selection of classic quotes.

Here's the poll, and the choice seems as arbitrary as usual: some genuinely iconic quotes mixed with recentist ephemera about Princess Diana, 9/11 and contemporary politics. And neat though it is, could anyone seriously consider Stephen Fry's "The email of the species is deadlier than the mail" to be a contender for "the most memorable quote of all time"? More memorable than quotes we still use from Homer, the Bible and Roman literature, none of which appear in the list? They conducted a similar exercise in 2004 - see Favourite quotation revealed! - when the winner from the predigested list was "'It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph", which is attributed very unreliably to Edmund Burke - see Wikiquote. I did rather like the runner-up, WB Yeats' "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams", if only because it's a key line in Equilibrium (video above).

I'd have preferred it if the OUP had come up with something iconoclastic and interesting to promote its Dictionary of Quotations. For instance, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K Pullum, CUP, 2002) led with a vigorous debunking of cherished prescriptive rules: see Cambridge Grammar takes aim at 'rules that don't exist' and Book's coauthor sets the record straight. For the OUP, this would have been a fine opportunity to highlight the misattribution that's endemic in the quotation genre, and use the ODQ's superiority to the typically error-ridden online quotation sites as a selling point.
- Ray


  1. Why is that video squashed? I can't tell if that's Bale, Cruise or Hawk or ...?

    Anyway, I agree on your grumping about voting for "favorites" -- whether from a limited list or even free choice.

    Short quotes used over and over again in various often inappropriate contexts make me think of those dolls that talk (or do other things) that we discussed in comments somewhere on this blog a while back. Disconnect the response from its original cause and you get a bunch of Pavlovian droolers.

  2. Dunno: all the ones of that scene I've found so far on YouTube have the same aspect ratio problem: it's Bale, anyway.

    Short quotes used over and over again

    Eurgh. I've bitched to Felix about this; it's particularly noticeable in the Quotations section of Yahoo! Answers (where the questioners are largely US teenage students). The impression I get is that US English literature teaching is obsessed with soundbites by Thoreau, Emerson, etc. Students get set essays to explain what various quotes mean; and conversely, if they want to write an essay or presentation, first thing they want to find is a quote to hang it on.

    There's immense emphasis on providing the correct bibliographic format for quoting, but virtually zero discrimination in where they find it: any old website will do as long as website citation format is adhered to. Mostly they try to brain out quotes in isolation, minus context. Also it usually gets at least one negative rating if you identify a misattribution: "This isn't by Jefferson, and here's why..." is evidently viewed as a wrong answer to "Explain this quote by Jefferson", rather than a sign of someone having the initiative to do some research.

    Not the students' fault: they're clearly being taught this tunnel-vision approach to quotations.

  3. Hey, not one good pun in the bunch. And where is the non-Groucho "Time flies like an arrow..."

  4. Julie: aspect ratio sorted (and I found how to deep-link to a specific start time in a YouTube video).