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Quotations about Language

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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

We should have a great fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves. ~John Locke

Language forces us to perceive the world as man presents it to us. ~Julia Penelope

The quantity of consonants in the English language is constant. If omitted in one place, they turn up in another. When a Bostonian "pahks" his "cah," the lost r's migrate southwest, causing a Texan to "warsh" his car and invest in "erl wells." ~Author Unknown

English is a funny language; that explains why we park our car on the driveway and drive our car on the parkway. ~Author Unknown

The reaction to any word may be, in an individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? When it comes to the so-called obscene words, I should say that hardly one person in a million escapes mob-reaction. ~D.H. Lawrence

Lymph, v.: to walk with a lisp. ~From a Washington Post reader submission word contest

No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous. ~Henry Brooks Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907

One man's frankness is another man's vulgarity. ~Kevin Smith

I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain. ~Jane Wagner

Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne. ~Quentin Crisp

Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work. ~Carl Sandburg, New York Times, 1959 February 13th

'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

It's a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water. ~Franklin P. Jones

Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer. ~Mark Twain

At no time is freedom of speech more precious than when a man hits his thumb with a hammer. ~Marshall Lumsden

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

Languages are not strangers to one another. ~Walter Benjamin

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

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

We have too many high sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them. ~Abigail Adams

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]

Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

A good catchword can obscure analysis for fifty years. ~Wendell L. Willkie

Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions. ~Edward R. Murrow

If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American. ~Author unknown

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,

I like the word "indolence." It makes my laziness seem classy. ~Bern Williams

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

Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true. ~Samuel Johnson

Words signify man's refusal to accept the world as it is. ~Walter Kaufmann

The English language is nobody's special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself. ~Derek Walcott

Language is the dress of thought. ~Samuel Johnson

Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons. ~Aldous Huxley

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

The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand. ~Lewis Thomas

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

In English every word can be verbed. Would that it were so in our programming languages. ~Alan J. Perlis

Verbing weirds language. ~Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought. ~William James

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

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

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. ~Walter Benjamin

One can translate an editorial but not a poem. For one can go across the border naked but not without one's skin; for, unlike clothes, one cannot get a new skin. ~Karl Kraus, translated from German by Harry Zohn

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

True translation is transparent: it does not obscure the original, does not stand in its light, but rather allows pure language, as if strengthened by its own medium, to shine even more fully on the original. ~Walter Benjamin

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

Almost all words do have color and nothing is more pleasant than to utter a pink word and see someone's eyes light up and know it is a pink word for him or her too. ~Gladys Taber

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,

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

Words, too, have genuine substance — mass and weight and specific gravity. ~Tim O'Brien, Tomcat in Love

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. ~George Orwell

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

Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery. ~Mark Amidon

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

It is a safe rule to apply that, when a mathematical or philosophical author writes with a misty profundity, he is talking nonsense. ~Alfred North Whitehead

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

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kunst and Alterthum

A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words. ~Samuel Butler (1835-1902), Note-Books

If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers. ~Doug Larson

I would never use a long word where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who 'ligate' arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

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

Our language is funny — a fat chance and slim chance are the same thing. ~J. Gustav White

He swore at us in German (which I should judge to be a singularly effective language for that purpose)... ~Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), 1889

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

Oaths are but words, and words but wind. ~Samuel Butler (1612-1680), Hudribas

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

There is a certain age at which a child looks at you in all earnestness and delivers a long, pleased speech in all the true inflections of spoken English, but with not one recognizable syllable. There is no way you can tell the child that if language had been a melody, he had mastered it and done well, but that since it was in fact a sense, he had botched it utterly. ~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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

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

Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when what we want is to move the stars to pity. ~Gustave Flaubert

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

Words want to be free! ~Terri Guillemets, "Not burned, not banned, not forbidden," 1989

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

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all. ~Winston Churchill

Old words are reborn with new faces. ~Terri Guillemets 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]

Learning preserves the errors of the past, as well as its wisdom. For this reason, dictionaries are public dangers, although they are necessities. ~Alfred North Whitehead

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.

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

'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

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]

Every American child should grow up knowing a second language, preferably English. ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic's Notebook, 1960

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

Swearing was invented as a compromise between running away and fighting. ~Peter Finley Dunne, Mr. Dooley's Opinions, 1900

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

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

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

Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with time when they learn they're not attracting attention with it. ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

The refined scholar sustains himself on the finest aged wines of poetry but should take time occasionally to partake of cheap-ale words. ~Terri Guillemets, "Drinking Literature," 2003

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like "epixoriambikos." Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of "the glory that was Greece" and the rise of "the grandeur that was Rome." There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it "wow," for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured. ~Ambrose Bierce

W is merely two V's posing as Siamese twins. But financially speaking, two V's are always equal to one X. ~Charles Wayland Towne, The Altogether New Foolish Dictionary, by Gideon Wurdz, 1914

Z is merely N tipped over on its back, supinely stretched in slothful slumber. Which probably accounts for the fact that it does so little work in the English Word Factory. ~Charles Wayland Towne, The Altogether New Foolish Dictionary, by Gideon Wurdz, 1914

Heinrich Heine so loosened the corsets of the German language that today every little salesman can fondle her breasts. ~Karl Kraus, translated from German by Harry Zohn

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"

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"

Language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise — that which is common to you, me, and everybody. ~Thomas Earnest Hulme, Speculations, 1923

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

I hate women because they have brought into the currency of our language such expressions as "all righty" and "yes indeedy" and hundreds of others. ~James Thurber, "The Case Against Women"

Let's not become so worried about not offending anybody that we lose the ability to distinguish between respect and paranoia. ~Larry King, about political correctness, How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: The Secrets of Good Communication

I contend that the PC movement exists not in order to improve the well-being of those whose oppression it purports to combat. Rather, its purpose is to wrap its proponents in a kind of verbal comfort-blanket. Beneath its complacent cosiness and nauseating sanctimony, the intrepid shock-troops of 'populist authoritarianism' pretend that suppressing the language of prejudice is the same as eliminating prejudice itself. Smug and self-satisfied, having assuaged whatever guilt they may have felt through their attacks on the 'non-PC', they ignore the real inequalities, ignominies and powerlessness of those whom they pretend to champion. They are instead complacently content at their 'victory' in contorting the language of 'acceptable' discourse in the classroom, in the textbook and in the mass media. ~Erik Kowal, as posted on, 2001  [PC stands for "political correctness." —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]

The Ancient Mariner 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

A different language is a different vision of life. ~Federico Fellini

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

"Children, don't speak so coarsely," said Mr. Webster, who had a vague notion that some supervision should be exercised over his daughters' speech, and that a line should be drawn, but never knew quite when to draw it. He had allowed his daughters to use his library without restraint, and nothing is more fatal to maidenly delicacy of speech than the run of a good library. ~Robertson Davies, Tempest Tost

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. ~Author Unknown

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

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. ~George Orwell

The word "good" has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man. ~G.K. Chesterton

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