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Quotations about Language


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Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers... ~George Orwell


Because of language, man has access to the past and the future. He can express the true and the untrue. Language helps him understand both what is and what could be. ~Wesley Douglass Camp (1915–1991), Preface to What a Piece of Work Is Man: Camp's Unfamiliar Quotations from 2000 B.C. to the Present, 1989


...words are slippery and tricky creatures, whether they drop from the tip of the tongue or of the pen, and when used in important matters, cannot be too carefully watched or too strongly manacled. ~Lelia J. Robinson, 1886


No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous... ~Henry Adams, "The Grammar of Science (1903)," The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, 1918


Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work. ~Carl Sandburg, 1959


'There is correct English: that is not slang.'
'I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.'
~George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, Volume I, Book I—Miss Brooke, 1871


What words say does not last. The words last. Because words are always the same, and what they say is never the same. ~Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin


Insufficient similarity
Is the curse of analogy.
~Dr. Idel Dreimer, lumpenbangenpiano.com


Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide—that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life—are alike forbidden. Manslaughter, which is the meaning of the one, is the same as man's laughter, which is the end of the other. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809–1894), The Autocrat of the Breakfast-table  [Puns —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


Who learns another Language, wins command
Of all the Wisdom of another Land.
~Arthur Guiterman, "Of Knowledge," A Poet's Proverbs, 1924


Often it's just a short swim from the shipwreck of your life to the island paradise of your dreams, assuming you don't drown in the metaphor. ~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com


SLANG
      Language in overalls.
ORATORY
      Language in a dress suit.
~Charles Wayland Towne, The Altogether New Foolish Dictionary, by Gideon Wurdz, 1914


When thoughts fail of words, they find imagination waiting at their elbow to teach a new language without words. ~Henry Stanley Haskins, "Imagination," Meditations in Wall Street, 1940


Gloria:  Don't be ridic.
Don:  Gloria, please, why imperil our friendship with these loathsome abbreviations?
~Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend, 1945, based on the novel by Charles Jackson (1903–1968), 1944


Verbing weirds language. ~Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes


The first time I ever read the dictionary, I thought it was a poem about everything. ~Steven Wright, A Steven Wright Special, 1985, stevenwright.com


Dictionary... a book with splendid vocabulary but poor plot... ~Leonard Louis Levinson, Webster's Unafraid Dictionary, 1967


"Seize the day" drains dignity from "Carpe diem." ~Willis Goth Regier, Quotology, 2010, about translation


A poem sings with a bad accent in any language not its own. ~Austin O'Malley (1858–1932), Thoughts of a Recluse, 1898


[The translator] has done his cleverest and best with this that follows, but you might as well seek to translate a violet into verse as seek to render in language other than its own the delicate sentiment, the exquisite rhythm, of the... original. ~William Cleaver Wilkinson, Classic German Course in English, 1887


Mrs. Howitt knew German and even Swedish much better than she knew Danish, and very often she commits ludicrous blunders which would be the ruin of the average translator nowadays, but nobody ever caught the spirit of Andersen as she has done, and she is loyally literal or fearlessly free according as the occasion demands it. ~R. Nisbet Bain, Appendix IV: "Andersen and His Translators," Hans Christian Andersen: A Biography, 1895


Some translators turn an author's words from gold to stone, others from stone to gold. ~Terri Guillemets


A translation of a poem is like a plastercast of a statue or a photograph of a painting; and the better the translation the poorer the original poem. ~Austin O'Malley (1858–1932), Thoughts of a Recluse, 1898


He hath studied her will, and translated her will, out of honesty into English. ~William Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, c.1600  [I, 3, Pistol]


The crucial test of a witticism is translation into another language. ~Charles Searle, Look Here!, 1885


There's always something that you can't pin down with words. Words fall flat all the time — look at the word dust around you. ~Dr. SunWolf, @WordWhispers, tweet, 2011, professorsunwolf.com


How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes. ~Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900


Well that just shows how far you can trust a dictionary,
Because I never saw a definition that was more utterly fictionary...
~Ogden Nash (1902–1971), "The Eight O'Clock Peril"


The dot-com mavens will not rest until every word has been mangled. ~Elementary, "The View from Olympus," 2015, teleplay by Bob Goodman  [S3, E18, Sherlock Holmes to Detective Bell, of naming a ride sharing company Zooss rather than Zeus]


Wit clothed in dialect is wisdom masquerading as folly. ~"Poor Richard Junior's Philosophy," The Saturday Evening Post, 1903, George Horace Lorimer, editor


What are your Axioms, and Categories, and Systems, and Aphorisms? Words, words.... Be not the slave of Words... ~Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, 1831


April: I thought you just said "honesty is the best policy."
Karen: A glib idiom that glosses over the complexities of the human experience.
Kate: Did she just call me an idiot?
~Mistresses, "Lean In" [S4, E5, 2016], written by Rina Mimoun


GLOAMING  Something dark and mysterious used by poets to rhyme with "roaming." ~Charles Wayland Towne, The Altogether New Foolish Dictionary, by Gideon Wurdz, 1914


Any man who does not make himself proficient in at least two languages other than his own is a fool. Such men have the quaint habit of discovering things fifty years after all the world knows about them — because they read only their own language. ~Martin H. Fischer (1879–1962)  #bilingual  #trilingual


If I could but entice you with sentences and tongue tie you with words. ~Jamie Lynn Morris


Words, however, even in the common meaning, are not, when used by a mastermind, the mere dress of thought. Such a definition degrades them below their sphere, and misconceives their importance.... Take the most beautiful and sincere poetry, which has ever been written, and its charm is broken as soon as the words are disturbed or altered.... A Thought embodied and embrained in fit words, walks the earth a living being. No part of its body can be stricken from it, or injured, without disfiguring the beauty of its form or spoiling its grace of motion. ~E.P. Whipple, "Words," in The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Science, 1845 February


But ten years are a decade. And in a decade the ever moving kaleidoscope of American life "does things" to the language of the Americans. In ten years, new words have caught on, old words have been sloughed off. The activities of business, politics, society, athletics, drama and the professions have implanted and brought to full bloom a host of new nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs whose meanings clamor for attention. The meanings, too, that graced the forms of certain old favorites ten years ago have been irrevocably shed, along with the golf cape and starched shirt-waist of that period, and are now replaced by heaven-knows-what mysteries of be-bustled and slit-skirted verbiage. Such are the fearful and wonderful quick-changes of American vernacular! ~Charles Wayland Towne, The Altogether New Foolish Dictionary, by Gideon Wurdz, 1914


"If you can't say something nice, say it in French," my mother advised... ~Vicki Linder, "In Praise of Gossip," Cosmopolitan, 1982


I take the music of language very seriously. Like a heartbeat, it exists right below consciousness — it animates and infuses your language with life.... A good sentence should sound good and feel good and roll comfortably off your tongue, not simply serve as a conveyor for ideas. ~Kent Nerburn


Whenever ideas fail, men invent words. ~Martin H. Fischer (1879–1962)


For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me. ~A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926


All languages abound in gold. ~Joseph Joubert, translated by George H. Calvert


Our language is like a mine in which gold is only found at certain depths. ~Joseph Joubert, translated by George H. Calvert


Alliteration is like showing up late, or playing the accordion. If you do it often enough people begin to despise you. ~Lemony Snicket, answer to "There seemed to be a significant lack of alliteration in your latest book compared to ASOUE. Any particular reason for this?" during a live Facebook chat hosted by Scholastic Reading Club, 2013 January 16th


You don't mind my mixing metaphors, do you, as long as there is a period between? ~Laura L. Livingstone (Herbert Dickinson Ward), Lauriel: The Love Letters of an American Girl, 1901


These go a great way in assisting me to make up my mind; and, if I were called upon now, to give an opinion, as to the views and intentions of Mr Burr, I should say with Mr Wood, the Editor who first denounced him, that I believe him “an innocent man.” What single act has he done of which any legal evidence yet appears of a criminal nature? Did he write that cyphered incoherent scrawl to Wilkinson? And if he did, is it treason or rebellion or insurrection? Our Chief Magistrate and a majority of his Constitutional advisers must have been haunted by the Ghost of General Hamilton to excite this hue & cry against Col Burr. There never was, in any Government, or in any Country that I ever heard of, such ado about nothing as this whole affair now appears to me. ~Thomas Boylston Adams to John Quincy Adams, 1807  [I only quote this because it made me laugh, this early nineteenth century way of claiming "What a nothingburger!" Here is some history and variation, per Merriam-Webster.com: "Nothingburger" (Louella Parsons, 1953); "cream-of-nothing-soup" (Phillip Larrimore, 2016); "nothing sandwich" (Tom Krasovic, 2017). —tg]


The Italians have voices like peacocks...
German gives me a cold in the head, sets me wheezing
And coughing; and Russian is nothing but sneezing;
But, by Belus and Babel! I never have heard,
And I never shall hear (I well know it), one word
Of that delicate idiom of Paris without
Feeling... myself quietly falling in love.
~Owen Meredith (Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st earl of Lytton, 1831–1891), Lucile, 1860


Sometimes hold it half a sin
      To put in words the grief I feel;
      For words, like Nature, half reveal
      And half conceal the Soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
      A use in measured language lies;
      The sad mechanic exercise,
      Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.
In words, like weeds, I'll wrap me o'er,
      Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
      But that large grief which these enfold
      Is given in outline and no more.
~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 1833


Old words are reborn with new faces. ~Terri Guillemets


...new words reborn out of an old time... like new seeds from an old harvest... ~Thomas Merton


COMROGUE. A jocular perversion of the word comrade, by way of calling a man rogue. ~Robert Nares, A Glossary; or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, &c. Which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors, Particularly Shakespeare, and His Contemporaries, 1822  [What a neat word from the 1600s, I think I'll start calling my friends by this. —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


I draw my chair beside the gr8
And dreamily I medit8
Upon my present single st8
I wonder if relentless F8
Ordains for me a living m8—
Such dreams have haunted me of l8.
This year, which I would celebr8,
Is leap year; but its precious fr8
Of lawful days to fascin8
Decreases at a rapid r8...
~“8TEEN 8T 8” (An Ancient Maiden's Twilight Reverie), in America, 1889 September 5th, contributed by "Pan"  [an early example of textspeak, way before texting even existed —tg]


Far far away, behind the word mountains, there live the blind texts. They live at the coast of the Semantics, a large language ocean. It is a paradisematic country, in which roasted parts of sentences fly into your mouth. One day a small line of blind text by the name of Lorem Ipsum decided to leave for the far World of Grammar. The Big Oxmox advised her not to do so because there were thousands of bad Commas, wild Question Marks and devious Semikoli, but the Little Blind Text didn't listen. ~BlindTextGenerator.com


Dementia slowly loosens the sufferer's grip on those unique tokens of humanity, words. ~George Will, "A Mother's Love, Clarified," The Washington Post, 2006 July 13th


Words are the indices of the mind. ~Latin saying


"That's what." —She
~Internet meme


Along with everything else today, words are getting a terrible kicking around... Conversation is edging toward verbal shorthand. ~Leonard Louis Levinson, Webster's Unafraid Dictionary, 1967


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wade;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
~Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky," Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1872


"Well," said Mr. Hobbs, "I'll be — jiggered!" This was an exclamation he always used when he was very much astonished or excited. He could think of nothing else to say just at that puzzling moment... Mr. Hobbs was not quite conventional. ~Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy 1885


I'll be jitterbugged... ~Claude McKay (1889–1948), Harlem Glory: A Fragment of Aframerican Life, written in the 1940s, published 1990


Youngsters and adults simply don't speak the same language. Slang, of course, is part of it. Any intelligent adult can with reasonable application learn enough slang to make himself sound ridiculous. The problem is that it keeps changing. If you don't keep up, you make it plain that you have spent the last decade alone on a desert island. ~Gerald Raftery, "Translations from the Teen Age," in New Jersey Education Association Review, May 1959 [a little altered –tg]


...slang is nothing but a vestibule in which language, having some wicked action to commit, disguises itself. It puts on these masks of words and rags of metaphors. ~Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862, translated by Lascelles Wraxall and Alphonse Esquiros, 1879


Slang is the illegitimate sister of Poetry. ~Gelett Burgess


      "Dr. Leete," I said, "has told me something of the way in which the universality of culture, combined with your scientific appliances, has made physically possible this leadership of the best; but, I beg your pardon, how could a speaker address numbers so vast as you speak of unless the pentecostal miracle were repeated? Surely the audience must be limited at least by the number of those understanding one language."
      "Is it possible that Dr. Leete has not told you of our universal language?"
      "I have heard no language but English."
      "Of course, everybody talks the language of his own country with his countrymen, but with the rest of the world he talks the general language — that is to say, we have nowadays to acquire but two languages to talk to all peoples — our own, and the universal. We may learn as many more as we please, and usually please to learn many, but these two are alone needful to go all over the world or to speak across it without an interpreter..." ~Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), "What the Revolution Did for Women," Equality, 1897  [Esperanto, the public domain universal language, was developed from 1873–1885 and published in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof, with the first decent English translation published in 1889, but the movement didn't become popular until about the 1920s, so I'm not sure whether Bellamy would've known of it. His popular 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward was translated into Esperanto in 1937. —tg]


Every American child should grow up knowing a second language, preferably English. ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic's Notebook, 1963


OH! The mild-mannered sister of Ouch! ~Noah Lott (George V. Hobart), The Silly Syclopedia, 1905


Ibid  A famous Latin poet. ~Leonard Louis Levinson, Webster's Unafraid Dictionary, 1967


My life is — in a word — words. ~Terri Guillemets, "Literary life," 1998


Words are just obfuscations of reality. ~@AnonymousVoyeur, "Strangers on a Train," 2011


Gas — they call a liquid "gas." ~Jeremy Clarkson  [on Americans not calling gasoline "petrol" —tg]


Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy. ~Author unknown, 1950


His English accent is delicious. ~Laura L. Livingstone (Herbert Dickinson Ward), Lauriel: The Love Letters of an American Girl, 1901


If I had a phrase-book of a really satisfactory sort I would study it, and not give all my free time to undictionarial readings, but there is no such work on the market. The existing phrase-books are inadequate. They are well enough as far as they go, but when you fall down and skin your leg they don't tell you what to say. ~Mark Twain, "Italian Without a Master"


Dictionary... Lingo Bingo... ~Leonard Louis Levinson, Webster's Unafraid Dictionary, 1967


Shame on you, you old lexicographers, I shall call you laxicographers because you have grown very lax... ~Ogden Nash (1902–1971), "The Eight O'Clock Peril"


Certainly not quite oddly enough, a very great many prophets, cranks, busybodies, snobs, opportunists, simple folks (and other nonartists) do not know that they do not know precisely what the word Apocalypse means. By God, a good dictionary ought to get up on its hind legs and tell them, sometime. ~E.E. Cummings, 1935


What used to be offensive is now acceptable, and what used to be acceptable is now offensive... That's the danger of an overemphasis on political correctness. Let's not become so worried about not offending anybody that we lose the ability to distinguish between respect and paranoia. ~Larry King


"The Ancient Mariner" — This poem would not have taken so well if it had been called "The Old Sailor"... ~Samuel Butler


JIGGY JIGGY or JIKI JIKI: Japanese equivalent for "make haste!" ~Herbert A. Giles, A Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected with the Far East, 1878


If a language is corruptible, then a constitution written in that language is corruptible. ~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com


I was gradually coming to have a mysterious and shuddery reverence for this girl; now-a-days whenever she pulled out from the station and got her train fairly started on one of those horizonless transcontinental sentences of hers, it was borne in upon me that I was standing in the awful presence of the Mother of the German Language. I was so impressed with this, that sometimes when she began to empty one of these sentences on me I unconsciously took the very attitude of reverence, and stood uncovered; and if words had been water, I had been drowned, sure. She had exactly the German way: whatever was in her mind to be delivered, whether a mere remark, or a sermon, or a cyclopedia, or the history of a war, she would get it into a single sentence or die. Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth. ~Mark Twain, "The Holy Fountain," A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, 1889


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 rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. ~James D. Nicoll (b.1961), "The King's English," rec.arts.sf-lovers, 1990 May 15th


Conversation is the slowest form of human communication. ~Judge, 1919


Learn a new language and get a new soul. ~Czech proverb


Jeff Van Gundy:  And I've never seen this supersized lineup... I guarantee this may be the first minute of the year that this lineup has been on the floor.
Mike Breen:  You can't say 'guarantee' and 'may be' in the same sentence.
Van Gundy:  Yah, you're right.
~NBA Finals Game 5, Phoenix Suns vs Milwaukee Bucks, ABC, 2021


But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. ~George Orwell



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