Quotations about   language

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Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority, but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Sense of Style, Prologue (2014)
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Tyrants thrive on cliché, on language that declares itself beyond questioning.

Gary Greenberg (contemp.) American psychotherapist, author
“The Stories We Tell About Drinking,” The New Yorker (2 Apr 2018)
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To a linguist, the phenomenon is familiar: the euphemism treadmill. People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. “Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom,” which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.” “Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.” The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
“The Game of the Name,” New York Times (5 Apr 1994)
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Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) Russian-American poet, essayist, Nobel laureate, US Poet Laureate [Iosif Aleksandrovič Brodskij]
“Speech at the Stadium,” Commencement Address, University of Michigan (18 Dec 1988)
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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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To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“The Prevention of Literature,” Polemic (Jan 1946)
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It might be argued that a man who employs this kind of skill with words for immoral purposes can do great harm, but the same goes for everything good except for virtue, and it goes above all for the most valuable things, such as strength, health, and generalship. After all, moral use of these things can do the greatest good, and immoral use the greatest harm.

[εἰ δ᾽ ὅτι μεγάλα βλάψειεν ἂν ὁ χρώμενος ἀδίκως τῇ τοιαύτῃ δυνάμει τῶν λόγων, τοῦτό γε κοινόν ἐστι κατὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαθῶν πλὴν ἀρετῆς, καὶ μάλιστα κατὰ τῶν χρησιμωτάτων, οἷον ἰσχύος ὑγιείας πλούτου στρατηγίας: τούτοις γὰρ ἄν τις ὠφελήσειεν τὰ μέγιστα χρώμενος δικαίως καὶ βλάψειεν ἀδίκως.]

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Rhetoric [Ῥητορική; Ars Rhetorica], Book 1, ch. 1, sec. 13 / 1355b (350 BC) [tr. Waterfield (2018)]
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Original Greek. Alternate translations:

But if it be urged that a man, using such a power of words for an unjust purpose, would do much harm, this is common to all the goods, with the exception of virtue; and especially in the case of the most useful, as for instance strength, health, wealth, and command: for by the right use of these a man may do very much good, and by the wrong very much harm.
[Source (1847)]

If, however, any one should object that a person, unfairly availing himself of such powers of speaking, may be, in a very high degree, injurious; this is an objection which will like in some degree against every good indiscriminately, except virtue; and with especial force against those which are most advantageous, as strength, health, wealth, and generalship. Because employing these fairly, a person may be beneficial in points of the highest importance; and by employing them unfairly may be equally injurious.
[tr. Buckley (1850)]

If it is objected that the abuser of the rhetorical faculty can do great mischief, this, at any rate, applies to all good things except virtue, and especially to the most useful things, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. By the right use of these things a man may do the greatest good, and by the unjust use, the greatest mischief.
[tr. Jebb (1873)]

If it is argued that one who makes an unfair use of such faculty of speech may do a great deal of harm, this objection applies equally to all good things except virtue, and above all to those things which are most useful, such as strength, health, wealth, generalship; for as these, rightly used, may be of the greatest benefit, so, wrongly used, they may do an equal amount of harm.
[tr. Freese (1924)]

And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.
[tr. Roberts (1954)]

And if someone using such a capacity for argument should do great harm, this at least, is common to all good things -- except virtue -- and especially so in the case of the most useful things, such as strength, health, wealth, and generalship. For someone using these things justly would perform the greatest benefits -- and unjustly, the greatest harm.
[tr. Bartlett (2019)]

Added on 2-Apr-21 | Last updated 2-Apr-21
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Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
“Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture,” Social Research (Fall 1971)
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Referring to Adolf Eichmann's use of "cliché-ridden language" as a sign of his "thoughtlessness." Reprinted in The Life of the Mind, Part 1 "Thinking," Introduction (1974).
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A man’s tongue is a glib and twisty thing …
plenty of words there are, all kinds at its command —
with all the room in the world for talk to range and stray.
And the sort you use is just the sort you’ll hear.

[Στρεπτὴ δὲ γλῶσσ᾽ ἐστὶ βροτῶν, πολέες δ᾽ ἔνι μῦθοι
παντοῖοι, ἐπέων δὲ πολὺς νομὸς ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα.
ὁπποῖόν κ᾽ εἴπῃσθα ἔπος, τοῖόν κ᾽ ἐπακούσαις.]

Homer (fl. 7th-8th C. BC) Greek author
The Iliad, Book 20, l. 248ff [Aeneas] (c. 750 BC) [tr. Fagles (1990), l. 287ff]
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Original Greek. Alternate translations:

A man’s tongue is voluble, and pours
Words out of all sorts ev’ry way. Such as you speak you hear.
[tr. Chapman (1611), ll. 228-29]

Armed or with truth or falsehood, right or wrong,
So voluble a weapon is the tongue;
Wounded, we wound; and neither side can fail,
For every man has equal strength to rail.
[tr. Pope (1715-20)]

The tongue of man is voluble, hath words
For every theme, nor wants wide field and long,
And as he speaks so shall he hear again.
[tr. Cowper (1791), ll. 309-11]

The language of mortals is voluble, and the discourses in it numerous and varied: and vast is the distribution of words here and there. Whatsoever word thou mayest speak, such also wilt thou hear.
[tr. Buckley (1860)]

For glibly runs the tongue, and can at will
Give utt’rance to discourse in ev’ry vein;
Wide is the range of language; and such words
As one may speak, another may return.
[tr. Derby (1864)]

Glib is the tongue of man, and many words are therein of every kind, and wide is the range of his speech hither and thither. Whatsoever word thou speak, such wilt thou hear in answer.
[tr. Leaf/Lang/Myers (1891)]

The tongue can run all whithers and talk all wise; it can go here and there, and as a man says, so shall he be gainsaid.
[tr. Butler (1898)]

Glib is the tongue of mortals, and words there be therein many and manifold, and of speech the range is wide on this side and on that. Whatsoever word thou speakest, such shalt thou also hear.
[tr. Murray (1924)]

The tongue of man is a twisty thing, there are plenty of words there
of every kind, the range of words is wide, and their variance.
The sort of thing you say is the thing that will be said to you.
[tr. Lattimore (1951)]

Men have twisty tongues, and on them speech of all kinds; wide is the grazing land of words, both east and west. The manner of speech you use, the same you are apt to hear.
[tr. Fitzgerald (1974)]

Pliant and glib is the tongue men have, and the speeches in it are many and various -- far do the words range hither and thither; such as the word you speak is the word which you will be hearing.
[tr. Merrill (2007)]

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Language is civilization itself. The Word, even the most contradictory word, binds us together. Wordlessness isolates.

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) German writer, critic, philanthropist, Nobel laureate [Paul Thomas Mann]
The Magic Mountain [Der Zauberberg], Part 6, “A Good Soldier” (1924) [tr. Woods]
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Alt. trans.: "Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact -- it is silence which isolates." [tr. Lowe-Porter]
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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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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)
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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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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)]
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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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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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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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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)
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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)
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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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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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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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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)
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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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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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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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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)
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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.
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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)
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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."
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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."
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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)
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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).
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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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Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.

Kingman Brewster, Jr. (1919-1988) American educator, diplomat
Speech, British Institute of Management (13 Dec 1977)
Added on 23-Sep-13 | Last updated 17-Mar-16
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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)
Added on 9-Oct-12 | Last updated 28-Jan-20
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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)
Added on 11-Mar-10 | Last updated 6-Nov-20
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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]
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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)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 17-Jul-20
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