Today in Tedium: You ever read an issue of this newsletter, spot an interesting quote, and think to yourself, “Man, it’d sure be great if there were more quotes in this newsletter?” Odds are, you represent a relative rarity among our readership. But the truth of the matter is, we do a lot with quotes to break up our many issues, but we’ve never delivered a piece that was based around quotes. And because I like setting precedents, here’s a pretty new precedent: a newsletter about quotations. Is the newsletter going to be nothing but quotes? Well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out. Today’s Tedium takes on the quotation. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“The object of this work is to show, to some extent, the obligations our language owes to various authors for numerous phrases and familiar quotations which have become ‘household words,’ and ‘to restore to the temples of poetry the many beautiful fragments which have been stolen from them, and built into the heavy walls of prose.’”
— The first line of the preface of the earliest editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a popular book series dating back nearly 170 years, to 1855. The book series gathers up different quotes from famous people and literary works throughout both history and the modern day, with Bartlett’s original goal to highlight the evolution of language, rather than merely quoting famous people. Per American Heritage, John Bartlett first published the book in an edition of just 1,000 copies—but within just a few years, the publishing of the work had been taken over by the powerhouse publisher Little, Brown and Company, a company Bartlett became a partner in.
So, before we go any further, we need to talk about how bad quotation sites are at citing sources
OK, sorry, I said this was the quote issue and I’m totally butting in with a block of text.
But there’s a reason for this. If you read the internet and look for sites with quotes, you will find sites full of unattributed quotes that just offer the line, with no effort to connect the quote to a source.
For example, when I did a search for a quote about quotes, I found this excellent line from Yoko Ono:
“If you have too many quotes from other people in your head, you can’t create. You have to keep your head empty. That’s why I am constantly enjoying the sky, the park, the walk.”
You might be thinking, what an amazing insight! I wish I could share that with others and tell people where it came from. But if you go to a website like BrainyQuote, you’ll find that the quote does not get connected to what she originally said. It is just a line hanging out there without any context.
Yoko Ono’s quote just lives there by itself, surrounded by thousands of competing quotes from other people. The line comes from an interview Ono did with The Observer, The Guardian’s weekend sister publication, on the occasion of her 80th birthday in 2013.
The broader context tells us a lot more than the quote on its own does. Here’s the quote in context, along with the two paragraphs above it, with the original quote bolded:
She describes herself as a “very thoughtful, always dreaming” child, who escaped constantly into words. Did she consider herself an outsider in the family? “A little. I was known for creating poetry anytime. Just like that! Somebody said to my parents, ‘She walks and when she stops walking, she has a poem coming out of her mouth.’ Was she rebellious? “Oh yes. Naturally. I did not like the conformity of Japanese life and, though I did not have any bad feelings against my parents, the whole history of the family felt like a big weight. I felt like I had to succumb to that and become a little particle in their big family and die spiritually. Or I had to survive on my own. It was that simple. And that complex.”
After the war, the family returned to New York and Yoko attended the exclusive Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal establishment where activism was encouraged alongside study of the arts. She also trawled the city’s art galleries and artists’ hangouts, connecting with leading lights in the American avant-garde, most notably the composers La Monte Young and John Cage as well as George Maciunas of the Fluxus group.
”I bumped into them,” she says. “I didn’t search them out as people think. I created friends that are like me. I attracted them. It’s a journey and you have to make your own way. If you have too many quotes from other people in your head, you can’t create. You have to keep your head empty. That’s why I am constantly enjoying the sky, the park, the walk. Anything in life is beautiful.”
The quote, on its own, seems a bit odd, as if it doesn’t fully explain itself. The context is more clear—it’s about trying to create original art when everyone around you is also trying to create original art.
In 2001, the website BrainyQuote, perhaps the best-known site in this genre of quotation, launched without a lick of attribution. Though, to be fair, perhaps the website was inspired by Bartlett’s list of quotes, which, in its original form, didn’t come with any direct citation to go with the quotes.
But on the internet, a medium designed around clickable links, it seems like a self-serving omission. But at the same time, it’s arguable the kind of omission that arguably harms the website—as highlighted by the fact that common style guides such as MLA recommend that you don’t use famous quote sites as a source. But still these sites persist—BrainyQuote has been online for more than 20 years!
So why doesn’t BrainyQuote, or any of its competitors, source the links? I have two guesses:
- It’s an intentional legal strategy to avoid being buried in DMCA or libel complaints all the time, as it means they have some sort of built-in deniability baked in because the quotes don’t have a source.
- They don’t want to have to deal with the additional work of sourcing all the quotes, because it’s potentially costly.
- They want to put up the quotes without asking for permission all the time.
There are likely also fair-use considerations around the quotes in media, in part because it’s tough to argue that BrainyQuote is really adding any commentary to the quotes, and the quotes, out of context, seem to scrape the edges of educational.
But I’m not a lawyer, so take my speculation with a grain of salt. But I am a journalist, and I need to recommend that you take a quote on BrainyQuote, or on any other quote site, with a grain of salt, because it’s clearly not a site that’s focused on accuracy. On quote sites, engagement always wins.
“Plaintiffs contend, and the Court believes, that ‘E.T.’ is more than a mere vehicle for telling the story and that ‘E.T.’ actually constitutes the story being told. The name ‘E.T.’ itself is highly distinctive and is inseparable from the identity of the character. The use of the name ‘E.T.’ on Kamar’s products inevitably conjures up the image and appeal of the “E.T.” character.”
— A passage from the 1982 ruling in the federal civil suit Universal City Studios vs. Kamar Industries, a lawsuit over the use of the name E.T. on a series of drinking mugs that were not licensed by Universal. The case is notable because it found that short passages of text can be copyrightable if the short phrase conjures up the value of the copyrighted work, and has been studied closely by legal scholars.
10 quotes we greatly enjoy that you might also find enjoyable
So, with the discussion about the ethics of quotations out of the way, let’s have some fun and highlight some really great quotes, shall we?
These quotes are a mixture of random ones we’ve uncovered, some of my favorites from my time with Tedium and ShortFormBlog, and some that just highlight absurd moments in history, digital or otherwise. Hopefully you find them as fascinating and as comical as we do.
“We have many Lisas, Marks, Dennys, Johnnys, and other characters from The Room in America and in the entire world.”
— Tommy Wiseau, in a 2009 interview with The A.V. Club about his masterwork, The Room, a film he compared to the work of Tennessee Williams in the marketing materials.
“What the devil do you mean to sing to me, priest? You are out of tune.”
— Jean-Philippe Rameau, a prominent 18th-century French composer, who died immediately after criticizing someone for singing poorly, which, let’s be honest, is probably the best way to go.
“Litter drove him wild. He’d come back with these bags and wave them and say, ‘Why do people have to do this?’ It perplexed him to no end. Knowing my father, he might have been worrying about how to solve the litter problem for ten years and never said anything about it.”
— Victoria Berger, the daughter of concerned citizen Richard Chambers, the man who successfully advocated for a bottle deposit rule in Oregon, the first of its kind in the United States.
“A man’s a man. A Highlander doesn’t need underwear. … If we did wear underwear, it would be made of, like, twigs.”
— Washington, D.C. resident William Oscar Fleming, expressing anger at a 2010 decision made by the Scottish Tartans Authority to change the underwear standards of its kilt-wearers, citing the “unhygienic” and “offensive” nature of the practice.
“KEEP THIS MEDIA KIT. Someday it will be worth a lot of money. Someday it will be known as ‘the first Virgin Cola media kit.’”
— The message on the front of the packaging for a Virgin Cola press kit circa 1998, a kit that is a part of my personal collection. Given that it cost me $9.95, it didn’t really live up to the big talk on the front of the kit.
“Like buyers of Model T Fords, banks can have magnetic ink characters printed in any color they choose—as long as it is black.”
— Albert L. Kraus, a New York Times reporter circa 1960, discussing a painful side effect of automation on the creative process for graphic designers that made checks. Essentially, the customization that banks relied on to build eye-popping checks was reined in by the simple reality that computers needed a streamlined process for accepting checks, which meant that was a no-go.
“As a company that reaches 110,000 retail outlets in all those countries around the world, HP has the scope, and scale, and supply chain to mass market this to a wider audience than it has ever seen before, and sell it at a good price.”
— Carly Fiorina, the then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, explaining why she felt it was a good move to start selling a HP-branded iPod through its retail channels. The move, retrospectively considered one of many questionable moves in a gaffe-filled tenure, gave Apple an entry into a more mainstream consumer supply chain as well as a pathway to get iTunes onto millions of Windows computers. However, Apple quickly upgraded its iPods, leaving HP stuck hawking last-gen tech, and the contract prevented HP from building an iPod competitor for two years—sinking the company’s chances in the market. It was revealed in 2015, as Fiorina was attempting to run for president, that this was an intentional strategy on the part of Steve Jobs.
“I have a soft spot for Joe Biden. I like him. But he’s dumb as an ashtray.”
— Roger Ailes, the deceased, disgraced mastermind behind Fox News, expressing admiration for the then-vice president in a 2013 interview. Good quotes make for strange political bedfellows.
“I used to tell everyone if I just had a room full of people to show how the product works everybody would buy it. The problem was I could never figure out where that room full of people was located.”
— John Scherer, a.k.a. The Video Professor, discussing his life as a pitchman before he came across that big-money idea, which made him a staple of infomercials and cable-television commercials for more than 20 years.
“Pizza’s actually healthy for you if you don’t eat too much of it. You can’t eat five or six slices but if you eat one or two slices it’s very nutritious.”
— Papa John Schnatter, disgraced founder and CEO of the pizza megachain Papa John’s, in a 2009 radio interview with BBC Radio Four, in what might be the world’s only example of pizzasplaining. Schnatter’s questionable commentary in areas outside of food would eventually cost him his job.
Even early on in history, there always needed to be a way to referencing something someone else said, which means that quotes have a lineage that goes all the way back to the Library of Alexandria, in the form of the “diple,” which plays a similar role that a right bracket plays when writing Markdown. That’s right, we’ve been using block quotes for more than 2,000 years.
While it faded in and out, it has generally maintained its use over time, author Keith Houston wrote in his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.
“Though the diple kept its special place in Christian writing (and hence, in writing in general), it was buffeted over the centuries by successive leaps in scribal practices,” Houston wrote in an excerpt from the book, published in Slate in 2015.
The quotation mark itself is a bit newer, dating to late-15th century Italy. In 2008, Italian literary historian Giordano Castellani argued that Renaissance-era humanist Francesco Filelfo first came up with an approach similar to quotation marks when publishing the works of Aristotle.
Another early work, cited by Houston, is Bishop John Fisher’s Defensio Regie Assertionis contra Babylonicam Capituitatem, in which inverted commas were used around excerpted blocks of text.
The approach was also similar to the modern blockquote, but eventually, quotations came to be used as citations within the text, rather than just off to the side.
Eventually, quotes became an essential part of life, publishing, and ranting. We would not be able to complain about takes we disagree with without a good quotation mark (though we would probably try to find a way anyway).
We live in a world where we excerpt and tear apart insights from others for sport. Quotations are our best tool for doing so, so if you see someone using one, keep in mind it’s just as likely to be used as a reference as it is a weapon.
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