Yale Bulletin and Calendar

November 3, 2006|Volume 35, Number 9















Fred Shapiro

Law librarian took the words
right out of their mouths

Those who know Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro would probably expect him to resort to a common proverb while talking about the recently published "Yale Book of Quotations," which he edited.

And that's exactly what Shapiro did when, in an interview with this newspaper, he described something he learned while working on the dictionary-sized volume, a collection of more than 12,000 famous and not-so-famous quotations published by Yale University Press.

"There's nothing new under the sun," commented Shapiro, paraphrasing from the famous biblical passage in "Ecclesiastes." He adds: "People say things that were around since Aristophanes. When it comes to subjects such as love, politics and war, for example, people have thought the same things for thousands of years."

At the Law School, where he is the associate librarian for collections and access services and lecturer in legal research, Shapiro is known among his colleagues as an authority on quotations. His passion for notable sayings led him to spend six years compiling them for the "Yale Book of Quotations," which includes the source of each quotation (when traceable) and cites the date it was first used.

The book's release has resulted in some media attention for Shapiro, who has grown accustomed to explaining his reasons for taking on the labor-intensive task of selecting the quotes for the volume, researching their origins, annotating many of the entries and providing extensive cross-references for some.

According to Shapiro, other famous resources, such as "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" and the "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations," are not entirely accurate in identifying the source of featured quotations and are also not as comprehensive as he would like, particularly in their treatment of such contemporary topics as computers, popular culture and professional sports.

"Perhaps the most famous quote in professional sports was uttered by [New York Yankee player] Lou Gehrig when he announced his retirement [on account of the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] and commented, 'Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,'" notes Shapiro, who included that now-legendary remark in the "Yale Book of Quotations."

Likewise, he made it a point to feature an array of more modern sayings relating to computers -- such as "Garbage in, garbage out" and "Information wants to be free" -- as well as catchphrases and quotes from recent films, songs and television shows, among other media, with an emphasis on American materials. The other reference works, Shapiro says, are more British-oriented.

The result is a massive reference book of quotations mingling biblical proverbs; verse from poems and plays; classic lines from films; passages from literature; snippets of speeches or other remarks by famed historical and current-day political figures; wisdom from scholars, scientists and others; song lyrics; and more.

Randomly flipping through the pages of the "Yale Book of Quotations," for instance, one might land upon some wisdom from "I Ching (The Book of Changes)"; quotes from legal decisions by U.S. Supreme Court Judge William O. Douglas; part of rap artist Eminen's 2000 song "The Real Slim Shady"; a passage from Jack Kerouac's 1957 book "On the Road"; a few words uttered by composer Franz Liszt about the unpopularity of his music in his time; U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumfeld's paradoxical remarks about "known knowns" and "known unknowns" at a 2003 press briefing; and commentary on the lives of white men by Native American leader Sitting Bull.

In the introduction to his new book, Shapiro explains why he thinks quotations are important. True to his reputation, he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: "By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote." In his own words, he adds, "Quotations are the backbone of much of literature, and of the transmission of art and thought more generally." He goes on to say that people find delight in quotations as a "natural response to the monuments of creativity and wisdom, kept alive by quotations, a communal bond uniting us with past culture and with other lovers of words and ideas in our time. ... A dictionary of quotations supports the communal bond."

Shapiro says he enjoyed leafing through "Bartlett's Dictionary of Quotations" as a child, then became increasingly interested in quotations while an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he switched his focus from engineering to literature and edited a column on quotations for a student newspaper. At MIT, he was also member of a tiddlywinks team and earned a reputation as a historian of the game. Later, while a law student at Harvard University, he once tried to trace the origins of the word "tiddlywinks." While the Oxford English Dictionary dated the word to 1894, Shapiro discovered a book published in 1890 that contained an article on tiddlywinks. He pointed out the discrepancy to editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.

While Shapiro practiced law briefly, he was unsatisfied in the career, and decided to attend library school at Catholic University.

"I have always been a person who is interested in facts and details and getting them right," says the law librarian, who came to Yale in 1987. He has since not only become a world-renowned expert on quotations but also an authority on scholarly reference materials. He edited the award-winning "Oxford American Dictionary of American Legal Quotations," co-edited "Trial and Error: An Oxford Anthology of Legal Stories" and was a major contributor to the "Oxford English Dictionary" and "Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang." In addition, he is the editor of "Stumpers! Answers to Hundreds of Questions That Stumped the Experts," among other books.

"The Yale Book of Quotaations" contains more than 12,000 entries.

Shapiro says his work as a librarian made him well suited for taking on the job of compiling a new book on quotations. At the Law Library, he is responsible for developing and managing the collections, as well as for circulation and interlibrary loans, special collections operations and library publications. He also has a key role in promoting the library's contributions to the national and worldwide scholarly research communities.

Through his library work, Shapiro is very familiar with the vast array of electronic resources that proved indispensable to him as he compiled the "Yale Book of Quotations." Using various online search engines to which the library subscribes -- such as JSTOR, ProQuest, LexisNexis, Literature Online, the Times Digital Archive and others -- Shapiro was able to research the origins of quotes by accessing electronic archives of newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals and historical texts, among other resources. Some of these provided access to newspaper accounts and historical material dating back hundreds of years. Shapiro also made extensive use of a network of reference librarians called Stumpers, whose members provided support on a number of research inquiries.

While doing his research, Shapiro found that some quotations in other popular reference books have long been misattributed or have the wrong date.

"One of the biggest surprises for me in doing the book was finding that I could come up with better information than was in other volumes, thanks to my ability to have so many resources at my fingertips," says Shapiro. Some examples of misattributed quotations he corrected in his book include "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings" (said by Ralph Carpenter not Dan Cook); "Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket" (Andrew Carnegie rather than Mark Twain); "War is hell" (Napoleon instead of William Tecumseh Sherman); "lies, damned lies, and statistics" (Benjamin Disraeli, not Twain); and "Different strokes for different folks" (Mohammad Ali, not Sly and the Family Stone).

Shapiro says his research also led him to realize that there are "two Internets, the Google Internet used by people every day for searches and that offers an incredible amount of information which may or may not be accurate" and the "higher end" Internet resources such as JSTOR and ProQuest that serve as a giant archive of printed materials from which computer users can verify facts.

Shapiro also relied on digital technology to gauge the popularity of quotes, which was one criterion he used in their selection. He included in his book the most famous or the most frequently cited as well as those he deemed full of insight or felt impart an important message. While others who have compiled quotation books have traditionally spent much of their lives writing down quotes on index cards, Shapiro never used that method, instead assembling his dictionary of quotes from "scratch," he says.

The oldest quote in the "Yale Book of Quotations" is a maxim by Egyptian government official Ptahhotep (24th century, B.C.E.): "To resist him that is set in authority is evil." The newest quotation is a remark by U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney from a May 2005 interview on "Larry King Live": "The insurgency [in Iraq] is in its last throes."

Asked for his favorites, the law librarian quotes one, appropriately, dealing with law, from the book "Le Lys Rouge" by French novelist Anatole France: "The majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." He also likes a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night": "One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it."

"There is a lot of insight in that passage," remarks Shapiro.

The law librarian says he is relieved to see all of his work in final form after spending so much of his spare time working on the "Yale Book of Quotations." Nevertheless, he says, he may update the volume in the future, and in his introduction to the book he invites readers to e-mail him suggestions for future quotes or corrections to those featured.

"Everyone gets a little sick of hearing me say quotations," he laughs. "But it has been a tremendous privilege to spend six years dealing with the most eloquent or insightful or humorous things that anyone has ever said. Through these short snippets, I've become acquainted with great thinkers, great writers and great humorists."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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Campus Notes

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