Not now, please!

I was running late for various reasons when I found that the theme I was preparing just wasn’t going to fly. I was a little short on quotes that hadn’t recently been used, partially because I had used the same theme less than two months before. This was the Ides of March, so I decided to switch from Blood to Assassins, and one of the quotes I wanted to use was from Alexander Cockburn, but it wasn’t sourced. (For three months now I have used only sourced quotes in the mailing.) I had no problem tracking the quote. I had a real problem with the date, because Alexander Cockburn the eminent 19th century British jurist died in 1880 and Alexander Cockburn the travel writer already in the database was born in 1941. So now I have them both. Alas, I only have three quotes between them. If you know of any more, please drop me a line — as long as it doesn’t involve a third person of the same name!

Later the very same day I thought I’d spend a few minutes dealing with the infernal Channing mess, by which I mean the large number of quotes I have long had from both William Ellery Channing and his nephew William Henry Channing. While both were notable Unitarian clerics, the elder was a writer and speaker of national repute and most of my WHC quotes that could be sourced turned out to be WEC quotes. It had been about 70/50, now it’s 101/20. But wait! There’s more! One of them turned out be a different William Ellery Channing, another cousin of the original, this one a poet. To contemporaries, they were referred to as Dr Channing, William Henry Channing, and Ellery Channing, but when the readers send me their favorite quotes they rarely even realize there might be a question. I’ll have a job for life keeping up with it.

Amy Tan

So now that I have sources for 53.39% of the quotes in the database, how come when I got to Amy Tan (born on this day in 1952, she’ll be the theme for today’s mailing) I only had sources for 12 out of 77 quotes? Easy, I entered most of those quotes before I got serious about entering sources. However, it wasn’t a real disaster, most of the quotes were from one of her five books or the extensive interview with Academy of Achievement when she was inducted there in 1997.

The first step is always to turn to one of my go-to sources for sourced quotes. For female authors, this is normally Rosalie Maggio’s excellent (i.e. comprehensive and mostly-sourced) Quotations by Women site. With Rosalie’s blessing, I calmly copied a number of the Amy Tan entries she had, formatted them to fit my structure, checked for dupes, and added them. How do I get away with this? Rosalie and I have slightly different standards for source citations, so after copying them I tend to research a good number of them. For example, if a quote is from the New York Times, Rosalie normally only has the year (a limitation of the book-oriented database structure behind her site) whereas I want the author’s name, the title of the article, and the exact date. So I frequently come up with more detailed sources, and every addition or correction I turn up goes into a weekly e-mail to Rosalie. Also, she has my permission to snag anything she likes from my site.

Once those are merged, I then start researching everything that’s left. In this case, two quotes were valuable additions to the site, but they weren’t from Tan. One was from Henry David Thoreau, the other from Edward Sapir. The final tally? Ninety-four quotes, only three of which are unsourced. And now the total is 53.47% sourced.

Abraham Lincoln drifted

What Nigel Rees of the BBC’s Quote …Unquote dubbed “Churchillian drift” has long been localized.

suspect Lincoln quote on quotes

NPR quoted Rees: “What I meant by that was, people — if they don’t know who came up with a remark originally or if they can’t be bothered to look it up — they automatically ascribe the quotation to somebody who likely said it. And obviously Winston Churchill is a very quotable person. He did say some marvelous things in a very special way.” In the US, the drift tends to be toward Benjamin Franklin (and why not, given how many of his beloved entries from Poor Richard’s were lifted from Thomas Fuller‘s Gnomologia?), George Washington, Mark Twain, and Honest Abe.

So when Lincoln’s natal anniversary rolled around last week it was with fear and trepidation that I reviewed the sources of my collection. As expected, there were plenty of duds, starting with “” which is still in place and the well-known (and well-loved) “You can fool some of the people all of the time …” which I had long-since hoiked.

In fact, I’ve been tossing such things when discovered for years, but I’ve changed my mind. If someone comes to QotD looking for one of these and don’t find it, they might note its absence and realize that when a reputable site doesn’t include it that it must not really be a Lincoln quote after all. Right, and I just might sprout a second head and double my intellectual horsepower. No, the only way this is going to work if the quote is present in the list and clearly labeled.

Don’t look for anything obvious immediately, but I’ve been working on a system to flag these entries and provide various indications warning visitors that it isn’t quite what they might think based on quotes circulating on Facebook.

For now, I’ll just be tagging them as I seem them. The fancy presentation will follow in due time.

Daniel Webster

Webster is an example of something I dread, an author who had many quotes in the database before I started saving source information. The orator was featured in today’s quotes (18 January 2016), last night as I was preparing for the issue I had 52 quotes from him, only four or five had sources. Using a combination of Wikiquotes and Project Gutenberg material, I collected three dozen items, about a dozen of which allowed me to add sources to current entries, the rest were new. Then I went digging for the rest.

Ouch! Two quotes (Other sins only speak, … and There is not in nature …) turned out to be from a play, The Duchess of Malfi, staged in 1613 by John Webster.

I couldn’t find a primary source for one (How little do they see …) but many late 19th-century collections agree it was from Robert Southey.

Another (I mistrust the judgment …) was from Arthur Wellesley while he was in India; before he was made Duke of Wellington.

Another (Every man’s life, …) is still listed among Webster’s entries because I don’t have an author entry to match yet. Apparently this one came from a New York probate judge named Gideon J. Tucker, who may be added to the database soon.

Two others ( and Keep cool; anger is not an argument.) turned up no sources, and I flatly don’t believe them. They aren’t going to last long.

I now have six unsourced quotes among the 81 entries for Webster, three of which I hope to find sources for sometime. The 75 I trust represent real progress, don’t use the others in a term paper without research, and if you do, please share the source info with me!


Over the last few years I have been increasingly aware of the dismal quality of the quotation database extant on the internet. While there are certainly those that are very careful, most aren’t, and I’ve come to see that my own reflected this and, in fact, may have been worse than average. In my rush to go from the first four thousand quotes to twenty, I grabbed plenty of quotes from other sites that weren’t doing a decent job, sometimes grabbing the same questionable quote attributed to three or even, in one case, four authors.

When Wikiquotes banished unsourced quotes I was distraught, the quantity of quotes I could lift from them dropped precipitously. But it wasn’t long before I understood the reasons: unsourced quotes have a very high probability of bogosity. They may be sloppy paraphrases. They may be accurate quotations but attributed to more well-known authors (what Nigel Rees calls “Churchillian drift”). They may be memes that grew anonymously. (“There’s always room at the top.” — See next entry. And I’m dead certain that Mark Twain never said “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, someday I’ll relate my logical elimination of that, which was independent of the great research on it by Garson O’Toole at Quote Investigator.)

So I’ve come to agree with Wikiquotes, and though unsourced quotes are not being hoiked en masse here, I’m not adding any and I’m constantly looking for sources for items already in the database. It’s slower, but it feels good, and it neatly connects with the ADD/OCD instincts to go digging in off directions.

I didn’t make note of the date, but several years ago I added a source field to the quotes table and maintained a bias toward including sources. A year ago I became adamant, and I’m sure that over 90% of the quotations I’ve added have been sourced, and for the last few months it’s been closer to 99% — a quote has to be spectacular (and credible) to be added without a reasonable source. As I write this, we’re at 52.06% sourced, and that figure grows slightly every day.

Oh, Look, a blog!

As a long-time sufferer from ADD (no “H” please, anyone that knows me would laugh at that) I hear a very similar comment with some frequency. I don’t know if it was the original, but Belmont University apparently has a class in their catalog called:

“Oh, Look, a Chicken!” Embracing Distraction as a Way of Knowing

That’s apt. For me, ADD has largely been exactly that. Because with ADD it’s only the first chicken in a wildly-inappropriate setting that grabs attention. You just aren’t impressed enough by the second one, you hardly notice the third one, but a Great Blue Heron or a mongoose would get my focus, as would a cloud of locusts or a flock of chickens suddenly descending in the yard. The ones that do grab you inspire research, and Google and Wikipedia are far more productive than the beloved Encyclopaedia Brittanica of my youth.

On the off chance that you aren’t familiar with this phenomenon, there was a ten-minute hiatus before this paragraph as I checked to see if the EB maintained the Latin ligature “ae” in the name, which led to noticing the name of “Charles Van Doren” as editor, which led to revisiting the story of the quiz show scandals of the ‘fifties, and a quick note to myself to make sure to add Mr Van Doren to the database, where he will eventually (depending on other distractions) join his father Mark and uncle Carl.

But, as Tom Lehrer was wont to say, I digress. This blog exists because the WordPress content management system, the basis for most blogs, provides a huge range of features that can be incorporated in any site, and I wanted to take advantage of that. And since I installed WordPress, I figured that it wouldn’t be too great a distraction to go ahead and use it.