You can quote us: The New Yale Book of Quotations is on its way

Yale Law Library’s Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the new volume, talks about his quote obsession, the inspiration for a new edition, and what makes a good quote.

Did you know that Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake” and that “War is hell” did not originate with William Tecumseh Sherman?

These are some of the fun facts one discovers in “The New Yale Book of Quotations,” edited by Fred R. Shapiro, associate director for collections and special projects at Yale Law School library. The book, scheduled for publication this month by Yale University Press, updates and expands “The Yale Book of Quotations,” Shapiro’s popular and entertaining 2006 book. In all, there are more than 12,000 comments, quips, and resonant expressions drawn from literature, popular culture, sports, politics, and other realms.

Shapiro, who also edited the “Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations” earlier in his career, decided it was time to update the 2006 edition based on new discoveries about the origins of particular quotes — and to include more than 1,000 new entries. The new volume includes quotes from the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Barack Obama, John Oliver, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Donald Trump. Also incorporated in the new edition are older quotations that have new relevance today.

Shapiro, who has had a fascination with quotes since boyhood, recently spoke with Yale News about what makes a good quote, some of his personal favorites, and why the time was right for an updated edition of the book. Interview condensed and edited.

You write that you had an “obsession” with quotes. How did that develop?

When I was about 10 years old, my father, who was a civil engineer (not really a bookish person), came home one day with a copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” from the Strand Bookstore in New York City. I was fascinated by it. I learned a lot about history and literature just from browsing the quotations.

Then, when I was in high school, there was an English teacher who would have students write their favorite quotations on the blackboard in class, something which I enjoyed. Later, when I went to college, I was an editor of an alternative student newspaper, and quotations were a popular feature on the back page of every issue. I didn’t originate that feature, but I inherited compiling it.

Over time I became very interested in words. I became a major contributor to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” and I used to supply a lot of information to William Safire when he had a language column in The New York Times.

What inspired the first “Yale Book of Quotations”?

While working on a legal quotations dictionary [for Oxford University Press], I got to study the existing quotation dictionaries, like Bartlett’s and the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.” I was surprised that they left out many famous quotations — just completely omitted them. It was like a dictionary leaving out the word “umbrella.” That’s inconceivable! But lots of famous quotations are left out of the standard quotation dictionaries. So I got the idea that I could be more complete, more thorough.

I had lunch with an editor from Yale University Press and he asked me if there was any kind of reference work that I’d like to do. I said, “Yes, but it’s too ambitious — to create a better quotation dictionary than Bartlett’s or Oxford.” And he said, “Try it!”

Why did you decide to compile an updated volume?

When “The Yale Book of Quotations” was first published, I thought that it was beyond reproach, that it was so much more accurate and thorough than any other quotation dictionary that it could not be improved upon. But I was completely wrong about that: since it was published I have gotten e-mails and letters from all over the world from people pointing out improvements.

For the first book, I tried to trace every quotation back to its origin, or as far back as I could trace it. But sometimes people would send me even better information. They weren’t professors, necessarily. Many of them were ordinary people who were interested in literature or history or popular culture. It was a kind of crowdsourcing — it was similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has always used a kind of crowdsourcing to get contributions from thousands of people. My most outstanding contributor was Garson O’Toole (a pseudonym for Gregory F. Sullivan, a 1986 Yale Ph.D. in computer science), who has created a magnificently fascinating website called

Getting this information made me realize I could compile an even better quotation dictionary, and I could capture more recent quotations that were, obviously, not in the first book.

What made this a good time for a new edition?

The New Yale Book of Quotations” is not just a revised edition. It is really a fresh work that significantly improves upon the original. And this was a fabulous time to do a new edition because I was able to use a cornucopia of online databases of historical newspapers and books. There has been an explosion of these resources. Millions of books and newspapers can be searched online. So I was able to uncover things that were beyond the dreams of any previous quotation compiler. I also now have a tremendous amount of new discoveries in the new book, altering the standard stories of who originated the famous quotations.

What makes a “good” quote?

I can answer that with a quote. It’s from Emily Dickinson: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

I feel the same way about quotations. A great quotation is one that just blows you away. A lifetime of reading and moviegoing and listening to popular music is reflected in the book.

Let’s hear just a few examples of some of the new quotes that are in the book.

I have tried to capture the political turmoil of recent decades. There’s “Black lives matter,” which is a kind of slogan but is also a quotation. It originated with writer and activist Alicia Garza. That’s a historically important quote.

One person who has produced a lot of quotes that, in my opinion, are not admirable, insightful, or eloquent is Donald Trump. I included a big section of his quotes in the book. The one that I think is the most remarkable is “[I am] not smart but genius … and a very stable genius at that.”

A quote I really like is an older one from Allen Ginsberg. He said, “There’s nothing to be learned from history anymore. We’re in science fiction now.” I think our political culture in recent times really demonstrates that.

There is also a quotation that is not new — it was in the first edition but receives an entirely revamped treatment in the second edition. It’s the “Serenity Prayer,” which is usually quoted as follows: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a very compelling quote, and there are countless people who love it and even feel that it’s saved their lives. It has generated a large number of origin stories, and, together with Professor William Fitzgerald of Rutgers University, I have researched it more thoroughly than anyone has ever researched any quote.

The Serenity Prayer is usually attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian and political philosopher. In 2003, his daughter [Elisabeth Sifton] wrote a book called “The Serenity Prayer” in which she describes how her father allegedly composed the prayer in 1943. Since 2003 I have been researching the origins of the prayer, ultimately discovering that its earliest findable use was actually by an obscure woman named Winnifred Wygal, a Y.W.C.A. official who was an associate of Niebuhr’s, with her usage dating as far back as 1933. This new evidence is included in my second edition.

The new edition points to other quotes that have been attributed to famous men but that you discovered actually originated with women. What is one that most surprised you?

One is a quote usually credited to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It was written by a woman named Evelyn Beatrice Hall [an English writer who wrote a biography of Voltaire]. At a time when accuracy and truth are very much under assault, I think being accurate and giving recognition to obscure women who originated famous quotes is important.

In the foreword to your book, American essayist and critic Louis Menand says that everybody has a quote. Why are quotes so important in our lives­­?

I think, first of all, that our culture is more focused now on sound bites, snippets, catchphrases, and slogans than on long-form discourse. People are drawn to snappy and pithy sayings that are meaningful to them, often things that are motivational or inspirational. People also love movie quotes, and they remember when they first saw a film and were struck by something uttered in it.

There is a human drive to connect with short sayings that help people in their lives and that provide solace or advice when they have difficulties.

Is there a quote that you live by?

One passage that is very meaningful to me is the Parable of the Talents from the Bible. It is not short, being spread across a number of verses. The parable is about a rich man who gave talents [ancient coins] to his servants. One servant spent the talents and another buried his away. Only the one who used his talent was rewarded.

It may seem that I am a religious person based on what I said about the Serenity Prayer and the Parable of the Talents. Actually, I am not that religious, but I appreciate great quotations wherever I can find them!

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