What is a definitive source for the exact wording of famous quotations?
April 17, 2010 2:12 PM   Subscribe

What is a definitive source for the exact wording of famous quotations?

Similar to how Snopes is pretty much the definitive web source for settling urban legends, what is the definitive source for the exact wording of famous quotations?

All too often, a simple Google search turns up LOTS of different versions of the very same quote. For example, I just found the following four versions of the Henry Ford quote:

* Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.
* Whether you believe you can, or you can't, you are right.
* Whether you think you can, or you think you can't -- you're right.
* If you think you can, or if you think you can't, either way, you're right.

Ugh! So what did he ACTUALLY say? Further, what was the source and when was it said? Context would be nice too.

Any suggestions?

Thank you!
posted by stst399 to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by HuronBob at 2:18 PM on April 17, 2010

Seconding Bartlett's--it's been around forever (I have several editions) and it's very highly regarded.

Other than that, I say hunt down the primary source at the library or (even more conveniently) from home: texts of speeches, interviews with newspapers and magazines, diaries, letters, audio of radio broadcasts, etc., are there for the taking at Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org/).
posted by tzikeh at 2:25 PM on April 17, 2010

Nrrrrg - Wayback Machine.
posted by tzikeh at 2:26 PM on April 17, 2010

Ah, I thought Huron Bob's link went to the online Bartlett's database, not just the amazon purchase page.

Bartleby.com - just click the "search" pull-down menu (it defaults to Harvard Classics) and choose Bartlett's.
posted by tzikeh at 2:29 PM on April 17, 2010

Generally speaking the internet is not great for tracking down definitive quotations. Too much sloppy copy/pasting. Online quote lists usually do not do the sort of citations where you can actually drill back to the original source. Bartlett's is really pretty good. For older quotations [pre 1919] you can sometimes search here with good results. The Oxford Quotations database is really the place to search but it is not free. Many libraries have subscriptions to it so you might want to check with your local library or librarian because if they do have it, it's easy for them to look up. I've also had decent luck typing a phrase form a quotation into Google Books [in quotes] to see if I can track down other people using it who may have cited it well.

As to the Ford quote, that's a tough one, but it seems to be a fairly typical refrain from him. Here's a quote from his autobiography
I refuse to recognize that there are impossibilities. I cannot discover that any one knows enough about anything on this earth definitely to say what is and what is not possible. The right kind of experience the right kind of technical training ought to enlarge the mind and reduce the number of impossibilities. It unfortunately does nothing of the kind. Most technical training and the average of that which we call experience provide a record of previous failures and instead of these failures being taken for what they are worth they are taken as absolute bars to progress. If some man calling himself an authority says that this or that cannot be done then a horde of unthinking followers start the chorus "It can't be done"
posted by jessamyn at 2:44 PM on April 17, 2010

Bartlett's is not trustworthy. There is no "definitive source" for any and all quotations, but the closest thing is the Yale Book of Quotations; the editor, Fred R. Shapiro, takes accurate sourcing more seriously than anyone else I've seen. If he says a quote appeared in such-and-such a place with such-and-such wording, you can take it to the bank. If he doesn't list a quote, you're out of luck, but you could write him and ask what he knows about it.

I shouldn't have to say this, but: Don't trust anything you read on the internet.
posted by languagehat at 3:09 PM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Brainyquote is a pretty good web resource.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:35 PM on April 17, 2010

The site languagehat links to also offers this list of quotation sites.

Incidentally, that list includes the Bartlett search on Barteby. Genuine question: what's wrong with it?
posted by trig at 1:25 AM on April 18, 2010

There's nothing "wrong" with it; I own a copy of Bartlett and occasionally still consult it, though I try to double-check what I find there. It's just not state-of-the-art. Until fairly recently, nobody took quotations really seriously; Shapiro and a few others (like Barry Popik) have raised the bar, demanding ironclad documentation and quotes accurate to the letter and punctuation mark.
posted by languagehat at 8:52 AM on April 19, 2010

See this AskMe question for an example of a false attribution in Bartlett's.
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on April 26, 2010

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