Steal this Quote, Before Someone Catalogs It

DANIEL BERGER

August 03, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER

The best guide to writing for newspapers comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:

''Was sich ueberhaupt sagen laesst, laesst sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darueber muss man schweigen.''

Which translates:

''What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.''

Tom Lehrer sang: ''Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.''

An eminent dean of journalism recently adopted Tom's advice, figuring that if his speech was dull enough, no one would notice. He reckoned without that ubiquitous university phenomenon, the Student Who Researches Everything.

When the university administration discovered a plagiarist in its midst, it immediately switched the man to full-time teaching.

A famous newspaper that reported this incident later admitted to having cribbed its story from a less-famous paper, whose editors will dine out on that for years.

A third newspaper had great fun recounting that business, and then fired a reporter for having swiped an unrelated story from a fourth paper. Where will it all end?

When I was young and critical, I kept a copy of John Bartlett's ''Familiar Quotations'' at the ready. Any time a pundit used an apt quote, I checked to see if it was in ''Bartlett's.'' Invariably, it was. So much for the pretended erudition. I had that pundit's number.

Later, on taking up punditry in a small way myself, I knew better than to fall back on the ''Bartlett's'' crutch. I picked up, somewhere, the most obscure quotation book in all publishing, ''Men and Affairs, a Modern Miscellany,'' compiled by Colin Bingham, an old (and politically incorrect) Australian journalist. Surely no one would ever see through my dependency.

Unhappily, there is little in that book I want to quote. '' 'Let the dogs bark; the elephant marches on.' -- Khrushchev,'' is not bad. But what can you do with, '' 'This hath not offended the King.' -- Sir Thomas More''? I haven't used it in years.

I have a remarkably small ''Bartlett's'' 10th edition from 1927, which looks older, at my desk. When colleagues ask if I have a ''Bartlett's,'' I brandish it and in disgust they charge upstairs to the library, where they should have gone in the first place.

Whenever a garrulous pundit I know gets off a zinger, he attributes it to Willa Cather, who never said anything of the sort. He actually means Dorothy Parker, as best I can figure out, but forgets her name.

So you can imagine my excitement when a book club that I am trying to drop out of circulated an invitation to buy something called ''The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations,'' published this very year, 1991.

Before investing, I spent a half-hour thumbing through it in a bookstore. By the time the clerk ambled past coughing the third time, I knew I had to have this book.

Here are the memorable words of our century:

''When you call me that, smile!'' -- Owen Wister. ''Ask not what your country can do for you . . .'' -- John F. Kennedy. ''We have become a grandmother.'' -- Margaret Thatcher. ''When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.'' -- Richard M. Nixon. ''A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,'' -- attrib. Gloria Steinem. ''History will absolve me.'' -- Fidel Castro. ''Parsley/Is gharsely.'' -- Ogden Nash. ''Go ahead, make my day.'' -- Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink and Dean Riesner, spoken by Clint Eastwood.

Of course, the ''Oxford Modern'' suffers, as many of the best reference books do, from being English. It has 11 quotes from Harold Macmillan and only five from Gerald (''not a Lincoln'') Ford.

Oh, it does try to cater to the American market. H. L. Mencken is here with, ''The saddest life is that of a political aspirant under democracy. His failure is ignominious and his success is disgraceful,'' from The Baltimore Evening Sun of 9 Dec. 1929.

Spiro T. Agnew is represented by two quotations, but not my favorite (''nattering nabobs''). There is only one quote from Bob Hope and no John Barth, Anne Tyler, Casey Stengel or Dan Quayle.

And this is too thin to be a proper reference, 236 pages before the index. At that, it is padded with the likes of G. B. Shaw and Saki, who are in the older books. But it does try doggedly to be contemporary as well, with 21 quotes from Woody Allen as against three from Fred.

The separate ''Modern'' volume could be a gimmick designed to keep the pre-existing ''Oxford Dictionary of Quotations'' in print without Mick Jagger. But the ''Oxford Modern'' does have gems all the older books omit, words strung together which define the age through which we have come:

''Ban the bomb.'' ''Burn, baby, burn.'' ''A camel is a horse designed by a committee.'' ''Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down.'' ''Don't ask a man to drink and drive.'' ''Make love not war.'' ''Fings ain't wot they used t'be.'' And ''Expletive deleted.''

This book is edited by one Tony Augarde, who is defined on the dust jacket as an editor in the Dictionary Department of Oxford University Press, and can explain what a tautology is.

Of course, in the highly competitive home reference book game, Little, Brown and Co., the American proprietors of ''Bartlett's,'' won't let England's Oxford University Press run away with the latter part of the century unchallenged.

Even as we speak, Justin Kaplan, Mark Twain's biographer, is editing a 16th edition of ''Bartlett's,'' up-to-date with the pith of Erica Jong and Dan Quayle.

But ''Bartlett's 16th'' won't be out until late next year.

Meanwhile, if you are trying to locate my cheap and easy source of the Wittgenstein and Lehrer quotes, try ''The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations,'' Augarde, ed.

Dan Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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