Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation

September 1, 2011

In the days following the death of Osama bin Laden, a quote attributed to Martin Luther King pinged about social networking websites and into email inboxes: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

While the second, third and fourth sentences were spoken by King in 1957, the first 23 words are the appended thoughts of a US schoolteacher. In a cyberspatial game of Chinese whispers, the distinguishing marks of punctuation become detached as quickly as you can say "retweet". In a short time, the Twitter-friendly opening line ensured that the hybrid phrase was truncated to its first sentence, King's name still affixed.

A number of journalists have since traced the alchemy and transmission of an unknown teacher's thoughts to a misdescribed memetic sensation. Yet the pathologies failed to investigate questions that seem far more fundamental. Why did so many feel impelled to disseminate it? In what way did the attachment of a famous name make it more meaningful? Ruth Finnegan's study makes a remarkable attempt at answering these types of question.

Quotation, with its bedfellows imitation and allusion, is at least as old as written civilisation. Through ever-increasing distances from the present and the personal, this book from the innovative Open Book Publishers (it can be read online for free) works through the thicket surrounding the verbal and grammatical mechanics of quoting. It has enlightening things to say about the Western tradition of compiling books of quotations. Quotation is often used to connect us with the supposed wisdom of the ancients, but humanity has always searched in the past for phrases to help understand the present. Just as books of quotations remain popular today, Erasmus' Adages has been called the first best-seller of the printed age. The Distichs of Cato were compiled in the 3rd or 4th century AD, and Plato has Socrates quote Homer more than 100 times.

A scholar who has long investigated orality in the fields of literature, sociology and anthropology, Finnegan offers analyses of proverbs, storytelling and the rich intricacy that signals spoken quotation that do much to illuminate the complexity of oral communication. The verbal realisation of quotation is the core concern of the volume, which crosses academic and cultural disciplines with effectiveness and confidence.

If there is a gap in Finnegan's analysis, it is her failure to fully investigate quotation's most contemporary forms. Two initial chapters repeat a set of responses to a 2006 Mass Observation questionnaire on quotation. This ought to have been complemented with a wider investigation of modern Western usage.

Different forms of quotation suffuse popular culture - intertextuality and referentiality are endemic in contemporary music and film. The internet is a vast machine for recycling old saws and chestnuts, for instantaneous conveyance of trivialities spoken by celebrities, and for competing and often spurious versions of poems, lyrics and aphorisms. Yet it is hardly mentioned here. I was left wondering if the internet might not be changing the way we quote, even as it increases our opportunities to misquote.

Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation

By Ruth Finnegan. Open Book Publishers. 330pp, £24.95 and £14.95. ISBN 9781906924348 and 4331. Published 1 March 2011

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