Unused epigraphs


I love epigraphs, so I use them as often as possible in books I write. The Prodigal Tongue has one for each of its subsections. I do think I chose very good ones for in the book (buy/borrow it just for the epigraphs!), but I still have a file full of quotations that I didn't have space for.

So, in the spirit of "reuse and recycle", behold the remaining contents of that file, collected during the years of research for the book. If you don't see it here (Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, The Simpsons...), then it probably made the cut and is in the book. What I've not done here (because I cannot be spending that much time on it) is give the full bibliographic info for each quote.

Please note that I collected these to illustrate various ideologies that I'd be discussing in the book. None should be taken as my point of view.  If you want to quote them, I'd recommend you first read up  on any unfamiliar authors before you do so!

Here will be an old abusing of God's patience and the king's English.

        —William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

The semanticist's dilemmas

This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.
        ― Samuel Johnson

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words.
        ― Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

Using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself.
    ― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.
        ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84


Language marches on

A word is dead
When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

        ― Emily Dickinson

'Words aren't made — they grow,' said Anne.
        ― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

        ― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets   

Don't gobblefunk around with words.
     ― Roald Dahl, The BFG


Americans on transatlantic differences/relations

the harmony between Great Britain and the United States may be as lasting as the language and the principles common to both
        — John Quincy Adams

the body of the language is the same as in England [...] it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist
        — Noah Webster, 1828

It offends them [the English] that we are not thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for not being like them.
        — Dr Henry W. Boynton, 1908   

I think we are all Anglophiles…How can we fail to be Anglophiles? Unless we hate ourselves.
        — the Librarian of Congress, 1985 

American grammar doesn’t have the sturdiness of British grammar (a British advertising man with a proper education can make magazine copy for ribbed condoms sound like the Magna goddamn Carta), but it has its own scruffy charm.
Stephen King, On writing

whether British commentators applauded or disdained Americans’ English, they all assumed it as their prerogative to make such appraisals
        — Paul Longmore, 2005

Britons on transatlantic differences/relations

I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
        — Samuel Johnson

The Americans generally improve upon the inventions of others; probably they may have improved our language.
— Captain Frederick Marryat, 1839

I do not believe there are, on the whole earth besides, so many intensified bores as in these United States. No man can form an adequate idea of the real meaning of the word, without coming here
        — Charles Dickens 

I do not know the American gentleman, god forgive me for putting two such words together. 
        — Charles Dickens 

 The English and the American language and literature are both good things, but they are better apart than mixed.
H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated
         H. W. & F. G. Fowler, The King’s English, 1906

Every time Europe looks across the Atlantic to see the American eagle, it observes only the rear end of an ostrich
        — H. G. Wells

American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge, 1943

The enjoyment of a common language was of course a supreme advantage in all British and American discussions
Winston Churchill, The Second World War  

You can get far in North America with laconic grunts. ‘Huh’, ‘hun’, and ‘hi’ in their various modulations, together with sure, guess so, that so? and nuts! will meet almost any contingency
Ian Fleming

American is the language in which people say what they mean as Italian is the language in which they say what they feel. English is the language in which what a character means or feels has to be deduced from what he or she says, which may be quite the opposite    
— playwright John Mortimer, 1989

I don't have an English accent because this is what English sounds like when spoken properly.
        — James Carr, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

 The difference between English and American humour is $150 a minute.
        — Eric Idle

It only takes a room full of Americans for the English and Australians to realize how much we have in common
        — Stephen Fry

I shouldn’t be saying this – high treason, really – but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.
          — Stephen Fry

To be snooty about Americans, while slavishly admiring them; this is another crucial characteristic of being British.
        — 'Bagehot', in The Economist, 2014 

When it comes to language we have nothing to learn from a nation that uses the word "randy" as a first name.
    — commenter at The Sunday Times, 2015

Americans have different ways of saying things. They say elevator, we say lift…they say President, we say ‘stupid psychopathic git’
Alexei Sayle

See also: the whole song Two Nations by The Streets



I have heard in this country, in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.
        — John Witherspoon (coiner of the word Americanism), 1781

For America in her infancy to adopt the present maxims of the old world would be to stamp the wrinkle of decrepit age upon the bloom of youth
Noah Webster

In no country in the world does the law hold so absolute a language as in America, and in no country is the right of applying it vested in so many hands.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 

What you write to me about American situations is no surprise to me. Without ever having been there I can give you a picture of the country as accurate as if I had been there.
        — Friedrich Hebbel, in a letter to Amalie Schoppe, 29 Dec 1855

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before.
Mark Twain

The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words.
Walt Whitman

It is, I think, an indisputable fact that Americans are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations are in a conspiracy to under-value them. 
        — Henry James

The American language differs from the English in that it seeks the top of expression while English seeks its lowly valleys.
        — Salvador de Madariaga, 1928

I sometimes marvel at the extraordinary docility with which Americans submit to speeches.
        — Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.  

because American companies are so successful — because American ideas are so successful — they get the blame for the horrible fact of world homogenisation; for the unbearable notion that people around the world might get what they want and might want roughly the same things.
        — Justin Webb, 2008


The English (sometimes 'the British')

But Lord! to see the absurd nature of Englishmen, that cannot forbear laughing and jeering at everything that looks strange
Samuel Pepys

The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.
        — James Agate 

The English never smash in a face. They merely refrain from asking it to dinner.
        — Margaret Halsey, With Malice Toward Some, 1938

Let us pause to consider the English.
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz;
that to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is

        — Ogden Nash

We English are good at forgiving our enemies; it releases us from the obligation of liking our friends.
        — P. D. James

The world still consists of two clearly divided groups; the English and the foreigners. One group consists of less than 50 million people; the other of 3,950 million people. The latter group does not really count.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

Bloody foreigners are rarely called bloody foreigners nowadays, some say because the English have become more polite; my own feeling is that the word ‘bloody’ has changed its meaning and is no longer offensive enough.
 — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

It has still never occurred to one single Englishman that not everybody would regard it as a step up, as a promotion, to become English.
        — George Mikes, How to be a Brit

England is a land that lives by myths. And one of the greatest of the national myths is that the English are a polite race. They are nothing of the kind. Indeed, the English, never known to do anything by halves, have developed impoliteness into an art form of great sophistication and complexity.
John Algeo, 1990

Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum. That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations...we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough... Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.
Louis de Bernieres, Notwithstanding, 2009


The French

you must hate a Frenchman as you hate a devil
        — Horatio Nelson

Southerners are snobs and condescending but it's not their fault the smell from France is starting to affect them.
        — Jack Carter (Leeds, UK)


The English language

In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people, than all the other dialects of the language.
        — Noah Webster, 1806

The most common expedient employed by democratic nations to make an innovation in language consists in giving some unwonted meaning to an expression already in use. This method is very simple, prompt, and convenient; no learning is required to use it aright, and ignorance itself rather facilitates the practice; but that practice is most dangerous to the language. […] This is a deplorable consequence of democracy.
        —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The English Language is grandly lawless like the race who use it,—or, rather, breaks out of the little laws to enter truly the higher ones. It is so instinct with that which underlies laws and the purports of laws it refuses all petty interruptions in its way.
Walt Whitman  

Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?
        — Clarence Darrow

Others may speak and read English—more or less—but it is our language not theirs. It was made in England by the English and it remains our distinctive property, however widely it is learnt or used
Enoch Powell, speech to the Royal Society of St George, April 1988

The English language was carefully, carefully cobbled together by three blind dudes and a German dictionary.
        — cartoonist Dave Kellett

Goodbye RP
Let our words go free
Coo and howl
Lay flat your vowels
Ah ay ee
Goodbye RP
Tongue uncross your t's
Slang and slur
Bah and burr
They thy thee
Goodbye RP Teachered tyranny
Speed this end
Our ows to bend...
Who were he wi'? 

speakers of English […] tend to divide into two camps: those who suspect that they themselves misuse the language and feel insecure about it and those who think they do not misuse the language and feel rather irritated by those who do
        — Ammon Shea, Bad English

English is a global language because English speakers have been global conquerors. It’s not about the quality of English nouns and verbs, it’s about the quality of English guns and money.
        — Gretchen McCulloch


And finally, the linguist's dilemma...

There is a general conviction that language is not a matter for experts. We all know about language because we all use language. No similar conclusion is drawn from the fact that we all use kidneys, nerves, and intestines.
Anthony Burgess, Language made plain, 1975

[L]inguistics does have one thing in common with prostitution. In neither field can the professional hope to compete with the amateur.
        — Morris Halle


  1. Laughter abounds. All so true, or so mean as to be indiscernable from truth.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! This is my now-seemingly-required post so that I'll be notified of further comments!

  3. I think that in one of Nancy Mitford's novels (not sure which - one of the early ones, though), we are told that one of the characters "didn't really believe in America"!

  4. Brilliant!
    Thanks Lynne.
    Some cracking quotes, ripe for pinching!
    But I'm intrigued by the carefully-worded disclaimer.
    I'm wondering if you are basically just warning us about Enoch Powell, or whether there are other dodgy characters lurking in there amongst the less familiar names...
    I suppose I'll just have to do the research, like you say!

  5. Epigraphs or epigrams? I would favo(u)r the latter in this context.

    1. They are epigrams, but they were unused as epigraphs and came from my ‘epigraphs’ file.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Nothing from P G Wodehouse?
    He wrote of English and American characters, for the London stage and Hollywood movies, and his novels are stuffed with epigrams.
    His vocabulary and idioms are exemplary - next time you have a spare afternoon, do read one of his stories.

  7. Here's another assessment of Americans by de Tocqueville, writing home to his mother in 1831 shortly after arriving in New York:

    "These people seem to me stinking with national conceit; it pierces through all their courtesy."

  8. "...when I speak my native tongue in its utmost purity an Englishman can't understand me at all." --Mark Twain
    Because how can this get blog entry get by without a Mark Twain quote?

  9. "Others may speak and read English - more or less - but it is our language not theirs. It was made in England by the English and it remains our distinctive property, however widely it is learnt or used."
    Contrary to this assertion by notorious fascist Enoch Powell, English is clearly now a global language. His attempt to lay exclusive claim to it for the English nation was laughably quixotic.
    But his epigram, which is new to me, does touch on something particular about my homeland and its indigenous people.
    It's undeniable that there are advantages to being a native speaker of a World language.
    But there are disadvantages, too.
    We only have one register, where others have two.
    We can envy the Gaels, the Welsh, and the Danes; the Georgians, the Navaho, and the Atikamakw; because after a day toiling exposed in the harsh environment of a World language, they have the warmth and comfort of a home language in which to shelter and recuperate afterwards, should they choose to do so.
    We English have no such retreat. We're always on display. It's as if we were living in a cultural glasshouse.
    The fact that language is the keystone to collective identity is something that colonizers, not least the British, have always understood very well, and ruthlessly exploited.
    Take a people's language away from them and you are more than half way to destroying their culture.
    It's why children in colonized lands have been punished (and in some places still are punished) for speaking their own language at school.
    So, if we English no longer have a language we can call our own, are we hoist by our own petard?
    If so, it perhaps it explains the feeling many of us have that there is a void at the heart of our culture as profound as if we were living in someone else's land.
    Now, while writing these ramblings I've felt the need to tread carefully around the fact that many people whose first language is English quite literally are living in someone else's land.
    (For example, the majority of Americans, Australians, New-Zealanders and Canadians, and a minority of South Africans.)
    No doubt they also sense such a void, if they are honest.
    But at least they have the option, were they to put in the effort, of learning and conversing in a distinct language indigenous to their homeland.
    We English, uniquely, do not have that option.

  10. Possibly the only time Ogden Nash has been found cheek-by-jowl with P.D. James ;)

    Wonderful post. Thank you so much!

  11. The idea that English is, in some sense, uniquely the property of the British and that all other speakers around the world are in a way speaking something derivative seems to me self-evident. It is of course "theirs" in a special way. They are undoubtedly the "OG".

    But as an American.. I would say one of the distinctive aspects of American culture is that they just don't care. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing is sort of immaterial. Americans have never particularly cared what other people thought about how they do things, and prescriptions for doing things differently don't just fall on deaf ears, they generally don't fall on anyone's ears at all.

    In any event, great collection of quotes! Loved them.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)