Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (4th edition): Reference Reviews: Vol 26, No 2
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Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (4th edition)


Terry O'Brien (Deputy Librarian, WIT Libraries, Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland)

Terry O'Brien, (2012) "Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (4th edition)", Reference Reviews, Vol. 26 Iss: 2, pp.19 - 20
The fulltext of this document has been downloaded 18 times since 2012

Dictionaries, Politics and political science, Rhetoric
Review Number:
Review Subject:
Lend Me Your Ears: Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations (4th edition) Edited by Antony Jay
Publisher Name:
Oxford University Press
Place of Publication:
Publication Year:
978 0 19 957267 0
Review DOI:
Emerald Journal:
Reference Reviews
19 - 20
Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Part of the Oxford family of quotation dictionaries, Lend Me Your Ears is the fourth edition of the well‐known book of political quotations by Antony Jay. First published in 1996 and previously reviewed in these columns (RR 2001/317 and RR 2004/245), our current editor described it as the “standard work in the field” (RR 2004/245). A perpetual favourite, it remains a really enjoyable and useful reference that varies between pleasure, topicality and utility. This is one of the few reference books I have reviewed that you would find in almost any type of bookshop (physical or virtual) and is in essence a commercial work. Nothing wrong with that; and whilst it is not an academic work, it is well edited, erudite and highly enjoyable (even if the latter seem like a contradiction in terms). It is one of those books that could be described as “unputdownable” – you start intending to flick through and before you know it half an hour has passed.

The author Sir Antony Jay is a well‐known broadcaster and writer, with a finely‐honed insight into the world of politics. Perhaps best known as a co‐writer of the hugely popular TV comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, shows that Homer Simpson might have said were funny because they were true.

The necessity for a new edition just a few years after the last is a bit of an old chestnut, but is nevertheless a legitimate question. The introduction touches on this by referring to the many changes the world has seen in the past few years such as the banking crises and financial collapses, the election of the first African‐American to the highest office in the USA, the Iraq War, etc. But is this not always so? Are there not constant events and changes to the world order and the world of politics? That said, this edition has an additional 300 entries with 90 or so new authors, so this does at least go someway towards assuaging this rationale. Further, the introduction states “If words memorably quoted were in direct proportion to words produced, this dictionary would need at least twenty‐four volumes”.

Although I personally found the most satisfying usage of this book in flicking and dipping, it is well laid out and contains what you would expect from a good reference work. Quotations may be found be searching the keyword, reference or subject indices. Authors are listed in simple alphabetical order (and within individual author by date). If you are searching for words from a particular quotation, go to the keyword index. For a specific subject, there is a selective subject index. Essential background information is given before quotations in italics; supplementary is given after. Each quote is followed by a contextual note on its source as quotations are “much more interesting with some knowledge of the circumstances in which they were uttered”. Further, there are ten new special categories on epitaphs, last words, misquotations, mottoes, newspaper headlines and leaders, official advice, proverbs and sayings, slogans, songs and the UK General Election of 2010.

As with many reference works, there is much hand‐wringing over what gets in and what does not. Jay calls it a “wildly unsystematic compendium of opinions, ideas and personalities”, but quotations are required to benefit and “invigorate political communication”. Other criteria include the characteristic necessity to be a “political quotation” and for the quote to have been quoted rather than quotable, a subtle but important distinction. The issue of currency is also problematic with the passing of time a factor for potential inclusion according to Jay, “ultimately time is the judge of whether an observation can be accepted as a quotation”. The criteria for inclusion remains high and depends on the verifiable and the “indefatigable research and scholarly rigour” of Oxford University Press editors. The primary qualification for entry in the dictionary is familiarity, quotations that are familiar to people and are or have been in public consciousness. As if to give further credence to this, the introduction to the first edition is re‐printed and remains valid, displaying a consistency of approach for the selection and omission criterion across all four editions. In terms of those who may use this reference, Jay makes the case that it would be “of service to those who want to support their arguments and opinions with evidence […] as well as those looking for no more than a pleasing touch of erudition or the avoidance of thought”. The two main categories of user are those seeking clarification or verification of a quotation and those seeking a quotation on a subject or from a particular writer. It is a book that will find a home on all types of library shelves and many personal collections too. Coverage stretches from Classical Greece up to the very recent such as Rahm Emanuel's already oft‐quoted “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”. As one would expect, big hitters such as Burke, Churchill, Shakespeare and that regular contributor Anonymous get more voluminous listings but those quoted just once can have a powerful impact too, as in the case of American businessman Warren Buffett whose 1993 quote “it's only when the tide goes out that you learn who's been swimming naked” seems particularly appropriate in current stringent times of recession.

Matthew Parris provides an interesting overview through his introductory essay From Rhetoric to Sound Bites in which he discusses the power of words and the challenges for politicians and writers in the era of the instant, of mass media, of the soundbite, and of course, Twitter. The importance or words or slogans as marketing tools for politicians is so important “that it is thought careless to entrust it to amateurs”, a notion brilliantly captured by Armando Iannucci in his satirical series The Thick of It. Parris asks how long before a future edition of this dictionary includes a section on famous political tweets? It would have been better for some politicians he notes rather caustically, if they had “confined their utterances” to under 140 characters. He speculates that politicians are torn between the impulse “to say something memorable and the fear of saying something memorable”. Crucially, he argues that for a political quotation to be great it must have applicability outside of whence it was first quoted – “it must read memorably even when taken out of context”.

The book naturally has a UK bias but it does have considerable international quotations and with a nod to the international market is adorned on the front cover by Barack Obama. No doubt a picture of Gordon Brown or Nick Clegg on the front cover may not sell so well. This is perhaps recognition not just of the power of words, but of the power of the visual image or the gesture in modern media. On a recent visit by Queen Elizabeth to my own country, every word the Queen uttered was analyzed, but nothing was more powerful or spoke to Irish people more than a simple bow of the royal head at the Garden of Remembrance. To paraphrase the current American president, should we buy this book? Yes we should! A modest but classic little reference about the power of words, and at £16.00 even Sir Humphrey would approve.


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