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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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The Canon of Quotability
Chasing up the source for a quotation just now I came to the OED's page of sources, listed in order of citation frequency. It makes for quite interesting reading. The top three places are taken by The Times (38,816 citations), William Shakespeare (33,144) and Walter Scott (17,029). After that it tails off slowly, with Dickens, at number 15, being cited 9,250 times, and Ruskin, at 100, a mere 3,232.

About half the sources are named authors, with the rest being made up of periodicals and anonymous works. Now, here's a quiz. Who do you think the highest ranking named female author is, and what is her rank?

Fanny [sic] Burney, rank 149 (2,357 citations). She sits between Mark Twain and Henry Watts.

Harriet Martineau, rank 252 (1,653 citations)

Jane Austen, rank 253 (1,643 citations). Austen and Martineau happen to be next to each other, but then there is quite a long gap until Elizabeth Barrett Browning (272) and Mary Braddon (283)

"But where's the Bible in all this?" you may be asking. Good question. It doesn't do as well as you might think, because the OED treats each translation as a separate work. Wycliffe's is highest ranked at 19, with the Authorized Version (to my surprise) languishing at 57.

Burney beats out Austen? Say it ain't so!

I suppose one could argue that it's not a literary judgement. But, with the OED, that would only be partly true.

Scott? Martineau? Burney? How very odd. Where are the 20th century authors?

You've got to remember that the OED is a historical dictionary, first published in the 1920s, so older examples are going to win out every time.

Much as I reverence the. OED, their quotation bias has wrongly shaped ideas about the custody of language. Of course, it privileges written English; and within that, chooses the powerful, canonical texts. That's where its contributors went for words: I would guess it seemed natural to them. (I do love that the OED was crowd-sourced.)

Not that Shakespeare couldn't write like a squadron of angels, but all those citations gave people the idea that he had the Largest Vocabulary Ever, which in turn made silly people imagine that he couldn't have been a commoner, a glovemaker's son. But some fascinating recent studies have compared Shakespeare's rate of introduction of new words with that of his cohort of dramatists--mostly artisans' sons--and guess what? He's about in the middle of the pack, outstripped by Webster (coachmaker's boy) and Jonson (bricklayer's ditto). It's what Shakespeare does with that middling wordhoard that's miraculous. Ain't the meat, it's the motion, as some other vernacular genius said. And to hell with linguistic dick-sizing.


Couldn't agree more.