Quotations about   language

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Though analogy is often misleading, it is the best misleading thing we have.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, Part 7 “On the Making of Music, Pictures and Books,” “Thought and Word,” sec. 2 (1912)
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Added on 19-Nov-20 | Last updated 19-Nov-20
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Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes!

Cole Porter (1891-1964) American composer and songwriter
“Anything Goes” (1934)
Added on 30-Apr-20 | Last updated 30-Apr-20
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You like potato and I like po-tah-to,
You like tomato and I like to-mah-to;
Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to —
Let’s call the whole thing off!

Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) American lyricist [b. Israel Gershowitz]
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” Shall We Dance (1937)
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Added on 21-Apr-20 | Last updated 21-Apr-20
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As a carpenter can make a gibbet as well as an altar, a writer can describe the world as trivial or exquisite, as material or as idea, as senseless or as purposeful. Words are wood.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“Sand Dabs, Six,” Winter Hours (1999)
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Ye knowe ek that, in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thowsand yere, and words tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thynketh hem, and yet thai spake hm so,
And spedde as wele in love, as men now do ….

[You know that the form of speech will change within a thousand years, and words that were once apt, we now regard as quaint and strange; and yet they spoke them thus, and succeeded as well in love as men do now.]

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) English poet, philosopher, astronomer, diplomat
Troilus and Criseyde, Book 2, st. 4, ll. 22-26 (1385)
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Note that the spelling varied between different editions of this same text.

Alt. trans.:
"Remember in the forms of speech comes change
Within a thousand years, and words that then
Were well esteemed, seem foolish now and strange;
And yet they spake them so, time and again,
And thrived in love as well as any men." [tr. Krapp (2006)]
Added on 24-Mar-20 | Last updated 24-Mar-20
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Every word is a messenger. Some have wings; some are filled with fire; some are filled with death.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“Sand Dabs, Six,” Winter Hours (1999)
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I think perhaps the most important problem is that we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another when the best fruit is.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Post, alt.fan.pratchett (16 Apr 2002)
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Added on 20-Mar-20 | Last updated 20-Mar-20
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An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969)
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Added on 14-Feb-20 | Last updated 14-Feb-20
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The English Bible, a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) English writer and politician
“John Dryden,” Edinburgh Review (Jan 1828)
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Review of John Dryden, The Political Works of John Dryden (1826)
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Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Part 3, ch. 1 “Words as Separate Units of Consciousness” (1988)
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Added on 27-May-19 | Last updated 27-May-19
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I really love language; it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies, of our existence. Most of all, it allows us to laugh. We need language.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
Added on 28-Feb-19 | Last updated 28-Feb-19
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“Yo!” said the Dean.

“Yo what?” said Ridcully.

“It’s not a yo what, it’s just a yo,” said the Senior Wrangler, behind him. “It’s a general street greeting and affirmative with convivial military ingroup and masculine bonding-ritual overtones.”

“What? What? Like ‘jolly good’?” said Ridcully.

“I suppose so,” said the Senior Wrangler, reluctantly.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Reaper Man (1991)
Added on 18-Jan-19 | Last updated 18-Jan-19
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Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 3 “The Work,” “The Passive Voice, or The Secret Agent” (1989)
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Added on 26-Nov-18 | Last updated 26-Nov-18
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Grammar, perfectly understood, enables us, not only to express our meaning fully and clearly, but so to express it as to enable us to defy the ingenuity of man to give to our words any other meaning than that which we ourselves intend them to express.

William Cobbett (1763-1835) English politician, agriculturist, journalist, pamphleteer
A Grammar of the English Language, Letter 2 (1818)
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Added on 24-Oct-17 | Last updated 24-Oct-17
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All books are either dreams or swords,
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925) American poet
“Sword Blades and Poppy Seed,” l. 291 (1914)
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Added on 6-Jul-17 | Last updated 6-Jul-17
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Your responsibility as a parent is not as great as you might imagine. You need not supply the world with the next conqueror of disease or a major movie star. If your child simply grows up to be someone who does not use the word “collectible” as a noun, you can consider yourself an unqualified success.

Fran Lebowitz (b. 1950) American journalist
Social Studies, “Parental Guidance” (1981)
Added on 22-May-17 | Last updated 22-May-17
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A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. The will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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Added on 25-Apr-17 | Last updated 25-Apr-17
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One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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Added on 20-Apr-17 | Last updated 20-Apr-17
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A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (Apr 1946)
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Added on 15-Apr-17 | Last updated 15-Apr-17
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Clarity in language depends on clarity in thought.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) American historian, author, social critic
Interview with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN (10 May 1998)
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Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to J. H. Tiffany (31 Mar 1819)
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Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
New Statesman and Nation (15 Jul 1933)
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No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.

Henry Adams (1838-1918) American journalist, historian, academic, novelist
The Education of Henry Adams, ch. 31 (1907)
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As for language, almost everything goes now. That is not to say that verbal taboos have disappeared, but merely that they have shifted somewhat. In my youth, for example, there were certain words you couldn’t say in front of a girl; now you can say them, but you can’t say “girl.”

Tom Lehrer (b. 1928) American mathematician, satirist, songwriter
“In His Own Words: On Life, Lyrics and Liberals,” Washington Post (3 Jan 1982)
Added on 3-Nov-16 | Last updated 3-Nov-16
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Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.

Adams - read think speak and write - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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We call that person who has lost his father, an orphan; and a widower that man who has lost his wife. But that man who has known the immense unhappiness of losing a friend, by what name do we call him? Here every language is silent and holds its peace in impotence.

Joseph Roux (1834-1886) French Catholic priest
Meditations of a Parish Priest: Thoughts, Part 9, #54 (1886)
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England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
(Attributed)

Not found in Shaw's writing. See here for further discussion. See also Wilde.
Added on 12-Apr-16 | Last updated 12-Apr-16
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Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Irish poet, wit, dramatist
The Canterville Ghost (1887)

See Shaw.
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There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Donald Day, Uncle Sam's Uncle Josh (1972 ed., 1st pub. 1953).
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The three most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you.” They are: “It is benign.”

Woody Allen (b. 1935) American comedian, writer, director [b. Allan Steward Konigsberg]
Deconstructing Harry (1998)
Added on 11-Feb-16 | Last updated 11-Feb-16
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The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.

James Nicoll (b. 1961) Canadian reviewer, editor
“The King’s English,” rec.arts.sf-lovers (15 May 1990)
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Nicoll later corrected the final verb to "rifle."
Added on 13-Jan-16 | Last updated 13-Jan-16
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The dictionaries should get with it; in pronunciation and ultimately in usage, when enough of us are wrong, we’re right.

Safire - wrong right - wist_info quote

William Safire (1929-2009) American author, columnist, journalist, speechwriter
Language Maven Strikes Again, “Drudgery It Ain’t” (1990)
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Often paraphrased: "The thing about language is that, when enough of us are wrong, we're right."
Added on 18-Dec-15 | Last updated 18-Dec-15
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Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Lords and Ladies (1992)
Added on 29-Jul-15 | Last updated 29-Jul-15
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When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody. All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, everyman has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“Essay in American,” Baltimore Evening Sun (7 Nov 1921)
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Don’t let them tell us stories. Don’t let them say of the man sentenced to death “He is going to pay his debt to society,” but: “They are going to cut off his head.” It looks like nothing. But it does make a little difference.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
“Entre oui et non,” in L’Envers et l’endroit (1937)

Translated as "Between Yes and No", in World Review (Mar 1950).
Added on 29-Sep-14 | Last updated 29-Sep-14
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KEATING: Now, language was developed for one endeavor, and that is? Mr. Anderson? Come on! Are you a man or an amoeba? Mr. Perry?
NEIL: Uh, to communicate.
KEATING: No! To woo women!

Tom Schulman (b. 1951) American screenwriter, director
Dead Poets Society (1989)
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Added on 2-Jun-14 | Last updated 18-Sep-20
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Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.

Kingman Brewster, Jr. (1919-1988) American educator, diplomat
Speech, British Institute of Management (13 Dec 1977)
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“Liberal” comes from the Latin liberalis, which means pertaining to a free man. In politics, to be liberal is to want to extend democracy through change and reform. One can see why the word had to be erased from our political lexicon.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) American novelist, dramatist, critic
“America First? America Last? America at Last?,” Lowell Lecture, Harvard University (20 Apr 1992)
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The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Mark Twain’s Speeches, Introduction [ed W.D. Howells (1923 ed.)]
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Nothing we use or hear or touch can be expressed in words that equal what is given by the senses.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
The Life of the Mind, Vol. 1 “Thinking,” Introduction (1977)
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Reprinted in "Thinking -- I" New Yorker (21 Nov 1977)
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“Work, the what’s-its-name of the thingummy and the thing-um-a-bob of the what-d’you-call-it.”

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Anglo-American humorist, playwright and lyricist [Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
Psmith, Journalist (1915)
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Mind you, the Elizabethans had so many words for the female genitals that it is quite hard to speak a sentence of modern English without inadvertently mentioning at least three of them.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Post, alt.fan.pratchett
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He who is ignorant of foreign languages, knows not his own.

[Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German poet, statesman, scientist
Über Kunst und Alterthum (1821)
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Alt. trans.:
  • "He who knows not foreign languages, knows nothing of his own."
  • "No man who knows only his own language knows even that."
  • "He who knows but one language knows none."
  • "He who knows one language, knows none."
  • "A man who has no acquaintance with foreign languages knows nothing of his own." [tr. Bailey Saunders]
Added on 6-Jul-04 | Last updated 20-Nov-20
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The limits of my language mark the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Austrian-English philosopher
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.6 (1921)

Alt. trans:
  • "The boundary of my language is the boundary of my world." [tr. Kolak]
  • "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." [tr. Pears and McGuinness]
  • "The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world."
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 25-Feb-20
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It saddens me that literacy has become suspect, and degraded, given how many millions of years of evolution spent developing the ability to create language. The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language. The less precise the usage, the less clear the process of language, the less you can achieve what you want to achieve when you open you mouth to say something. We have slowly bastardized and degraded and weakened the language, abetted and abided by a growing cultural disdain for literacy, a cyclical trend toward anti-intellectualism.

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a "JMS"]
rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, “ATTN JMS: Influences?” (27 Oct 1995)
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DELENN: In my experience, if you cannot say what you mean, you cannot mean what you say.

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a "JMS"]
Babylon 5, 4×06 “Into the Fire” (3 Feb 1997)
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Words, like glass, obscure when they do not aid vision.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]

Alt. trans.: "Words, like eyeglasses, obscure everything they do not make clear."
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 13-May-16
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