I once complained to a friend that, having been educated at a secondary modern school, I understood few Latin tags, to which he replied: "Ah well . . . nil desperandum." The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said to a new MP: "Don't quote Latin. Say what you have to say, and then sit down." The advice would be otiose today, except maybe in the case of Boris Johnson. But Latin tags and Latin quotations are used too often for the oversensitive likes of me, and I am very wary of the whole business of learned quotation.
Because I happen to have been labouring on a dictionary of quotations for about three and a half years, people often turn to me to give the provenance for any quotations they spout. When a friend and I were thinking of taking up lawn bowls, he asked me: "Who was it who said, 'Beware of any pastime for which you have to buy new clothes'?" (We'd just found out that you have to wear all white at my local bowls club, and shoes with no heels.) It was Henry David Thoreau who said that, as I remembered, rather typically, just too late to tell my friend before he drove off. At least, Thoreau wrote something very like that. My friend had most likely uttered a quotation within Ambrose Bierce's definition of the word: "The act of repeating erroneously the words of another."
Certainly, it's a clever observation of Thoreau's, but why cite it in conversation? I don't believing in quoting aloud. It's swanky, and it stops everyone else in their tracks. There's a numb moment when people quote aloud: are we meant to be impressed by the quoter or by the quoted? Or is the credit to be shared, and if so in what proportion? (Does the quoter take 10 per cent, like a sort of agent, for the remark?) Is the quotation a testament to the brainpower of the speaker or merely to the power of their memory, to the breadth of their reading or the quality of their education? There is also something slightly craven about quotation; an obeisance to the source of the remark that is not always appropriate. Beachcomber (J B Morton) once defined an epigram thus: "Any sentence spoken by anybody who is in the public eye at the moment."
There again, Dr Johnson said: "Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world", and I agree with that general idea when I'm drunk (as perhaps Johnson was when he said it), or faltering badly in a conversation (as Johnson presumably never did). Perhaps others will start quoting at the same time - because one quotation usually inspires an attempt to trump it - and the gathering will take on the strained gentility of Round Britain Quiz.
How to halt those who would quote out loud? There's always the old Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." The trouble with this is that anyone who's told someone else to stop quoting, and in such peremptory terms, cannot really be interested in what that person knows; the implication, in fact, is that the person so chastised knows nothing. Could I suggest a simple yawn instead?
At any rate, my dictionary will not be for those who quote aloud, and I may lobby the publishers for some opening stipulation to that effect. It will be for those who like to read and silently digest, as I have been doing while compiling the dictionary, a process which I suspect may have increased my capacity for wisdom tenfold, and has filled in some of the most embarrassing gaps in my education. Also, transmission of quotations in writing will be allowed . . . So here's my favourite as of today: "Life is like a B-movie. You don't want to leave in the middle of it, but you don't want to see it again." New Statesman readers will be surprised to hear that this was said by the American media mogul Ted Turner.