Quoting from literature in conversations
January 24, 2013 3:07 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone memorize quotes from literary works and use them in conversations?

This has been a mystery to me for a long time. In movies, TV series, and even books, I see characters quoting lines from books and plays, often classical works.
I think it would be nice to be able to do that, but then I realize although I have read, studied, and loved many books, I don't remember any word-by-word sentences in them. I then wonder if I have been reading wrong, if I have especially volatile memory for such use, or if it has anything to do with English being a foreign language to me.
Do people actually quote from books and plays in real life? Does memorization come naturally by reading? Or are there people who take time and effort to deliberately memorize parts of texts that they particularly liked? (which actually sounds like a great thing to do, even not for showing off purposes)
posted by eisenl to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it happens. No, it doesn't happen anywhere near as much as in books/movies/etc. At least in the sense that you're asking about classic works. This isn't functionally any different from the way people constantly quote The Simpsons or Monty Python other than that pop culture is often, and incorrectly, seen as being less "worth" doing it with. That artificial distinction often ends up just being one of retrospect, eg. Shakespeare's plays weren't exactly high culture in their own time.
posted by Su at 3:15 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of people memorize lines from TV Shows and Movies just from watching them a lot. I've got lines memorized from books that I've just read often, and entire movies practically memorized.

Sometimes people just remember quotes in isolation because they're useful, or are particularly well expressed: "A witty saying proves nothing" was famously said by Voltaire, but I bet almost no one who quotes it has any idea what book it was from.
posted by empath at 3:18 AM on January 24, 2013

It probably depends on the person. I have a very cultured professor who can memorize things just by reading, and so he's able to drop lines and does so. Those without an equally powerful memory are out of luck and will have to invest time with each quote they want to memorize.
posted by SollosQ at 3:27 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Being able to do this because one understands, retains, and can recall what one reads is one of the side benefits of being well-read.

Being able to do this because one has set out on a deliberate project to memorize and internalize choice portions of literature for one's own betterment is also cool.

Being able to do this because one has specifically set out to memorize a set of pithy quotes for use at opportune moments is a waste of your time and everyone else's.
posted by valkyryn at 3:31 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't "memorize" quotes, but I might remember a pithy quote depending on the situation. I can think of friends who never quote anything and others who know a lot of quotes from dense works. Not sure how much conscious prepping is involved, different people seem to be able to remember different things.
posted by telstar at 3:33 AM on January 24, 2013

I don't as a rule. But I've always like the Burns line from "To a Louse"

"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

It's a great quote and, should one choose, can be used as an insult as it's barely understandable to anyone without prior knowledge or a talent for understanding drunk Glaswegians.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:33 AM on January 24, 2013

In my family we quote King Lear to tantrum-throwing toddlers and sullen teenagers: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" (My mother does this with a sort of murmer and a raised eyebrow that will silence any child at 15 paces.)

We occasionally voice the dog doing Hamlet: "Oh, woe is me!" etc.

I am constantly saying "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" when I can't find a pen.

I have been known to jokingly say "A plague on both your houses!" to close friends who are being irritating.

I know these phrases because they are in semi-common usage in my family, ie I acquired them natively and not through study. I remember some lines from the vast amount of literature I studied at uni but I rarely if ever quote it. Like a lot of people, I can and do quote The Simpsons and The Princess Bride but I think that's just cultural literacy because those lines are so often repeated.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:42 AM on January 24, 2013

My girlfriend and I met on Match.com over our love of John Kennedy Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" and we quote little phrases back and forth to each other a great deal. It's so ribald and ridiculous and the characters are highly quotable.
posted by THAT William Mize at 3:42 AM on January 24, 2013

In my family we quote King Lear to tantrum-throwing toddlers and sullen teenagers: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" (My mother does this with a sort of murmer and a raised eyebrow that will silence any child at 15 paces.)

Let's hope she never has to resort to quoting from Richard III, "Out of the kennels of thy womb hath crept a hell-hound"

I have a lot of lines from Shakespeare plays more or less memorised, as well as a fair bit of poetry, generally when I've seen something enough times the choicest verbal morsels stick around in my mind.
posted by atrazine at 3:49 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't deliberately memorise lines from literature or books but some of them do sink into your memory inadvertantly and present themselves at opportune moments. When you read a lot or watch a lot of TV/movies it happens automatically.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:50 AM on January 24, 2013

I've taught Shakespeare enough times now that the good lines are stuck in my head. They just come out at an appropriate time and appropriate audience (mainly other English teachers).

I once figured that I have seen Brannagh's Hamlet at least 16 times by now. You can memorize anything after hearing it 16 times.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 3:58 AM on January 24, 2013

Response by poster: I am not thinking about the pretentious, people-impressing aspect of this. When someone is able to quote well from literature, i think it is enviable the person got to know a piece of work so closely, and internalized the material so well that it can be used creatively. And of course, expressing oneself accurately and eloquently with a well-equipped tool chest of language is awesome, too.
I think there is value in memorizing, either spontaneously or deliberately, lines of special beauty and meaning. Religious people memorize verses from holy scripture, and the verses come to them in different times, every time with different meaning. In that sense you get more and more out from the same words at every use, and they really become yours, better than passive reading.
posted by eisenl at 4:19 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am not thinking about the pretentious, people-impressing aspect of this. When someone is able to quote well from literature, i think it is enviable the person got to know a piece of work so closely, and internalized the material so well that it can be used creatively. And of course, expressing oneself accurately and eloquently with a well-equipped tool chest of language is awesome, too.

Oh, I definitely agree. I've got a friend who's quietly made it his life's work to memorise the entire Iliad (in the original Greek, of course). I certainly think there's a spiritual element to it.
posted by atrazine at 4:27 AM on January 24, 2013

For what it's worth: I have a good memory for quotations, and agree with others here who have classed it as, at least in part, an innate (and/or unconsciously acquired) ability. In that sense it's not really admirable in the same way as people who set out to memorize a great work for their own enrichment -- it's not something I made any effort to develop. I do enjoy having an internal library of snippets of beautiful language. Unfortunately it's an indiscriminate ability, and my memory is also cluttered with chunks of awful doggerel verse I read decades ago, which I would like to get lasered out of my brain as soon as the technology is available.
posted by pont at 4:39 AM on January 24, 2013

I sometimes use snippets of quotations casually, but generally only if it's a quotation that I've found particularly useful, or that's well-known. I aim for conversational shorthand, not impressing the listener. For example, if the conversation's about teenagers and those crazy things they're doing, I'm often like, "well, gather ye rosebuds." I don't purposely gather quotations to use later, and I don't use everything I've read or memorized; there's some Shakespeare permanently burned in my head thanks to eighth-grade English, and while I'm glad to know it, I don't really bring it up in conversation.

To do this often requires some bit of shared knowledge. I once said "Good fences make good neighbors" to a friend who was unfamiliar with the Frost poem, and she thought that sounded like a pretty good philosophy.

Most of the stuff I've memorized, either on purpose or through osmosis, is from literature I read in middle or high school. I think stuff that impresses you in your youth tends to stick for a long time, plus high school reading lists tend to be well-curated and include quotable classics and a large amount of poetry. Verse is often more succinct and easier to memorize than prose.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:48 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've deliberately and accidentally memorized quite a few poems and quotes that I like but I don't really trot them out in casual conversation unless the nature of the quote is a particularly pithy way of summarizing a bit of advice or philosophy.

For instance:

- "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls." (Campbell)
- "You could not step twice into the same river for other waters are ever flowing onto you." (Heraclitus)
- "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." (Confucius)
- "Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torment of man." (Nietzsche)
- "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned." (Buddhist saying)

Most of us use a ton of phrases that are quotes or paraphrases from Shakespeare or the various versions Christian Bible without even being consciously aware of it.

For example:

- You reap what you sow
- Give up the ghost
- No rest for the wicked
- By the skin of your teeth
- Brevity is the soul of wit
- It was Greek to me
- Discretion is the better part of valor
posted by xyzzy at 5:20 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you use any of these sayings in conversations you would be quoting the King James Bible even if you don't realize it,
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
All things must pass
A man after his own heart
A wolf in sheep's clothing
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
Apple of your eye
As old as the hills
At their wits' end
Baptism of fire
Bite the dust
Bread of life
Broken heart
By the skin of your teeth
Can a leopard change its spots?
Cast the first stone
Eat drink and be merry
Fall from grace
Flesh and blood
Feet of clay
Fly in the ointment
Fight the good fight
Forbidden fruit
Give up the ghost
Gird your loins
Heart's desire
Holier than thou
In the twinkling of an eye
It's better to give than receive
Labour of love
Law unto themselves
Living off the fat of the land
Love of money is the root of all evil
No rest for the wicked
O ye of little faith
Out of the mouths of babes
Powers that be
Put your house in order
Reap what you sow
Red sky at night; shepherds' delight
Sour grapes
See eye to eye
Set your teeth on edge
Sign of the times
Strength to strength
The blind leading the blind
The root of the matter
The salt of the earth
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak
Wages of sin
Writing is on the wall
posted by Blasdelb at 5:38 AM on January 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would say that I love and often collect quotes, but seldom memorize them -- like many people, I tend to use more pop culture quotes (from, e.g., Seinfeld reruns) than literary ones. On the other hand, I have made a point of memorizing some things -- mostly poems (some by having them recited to me over and over, others by conscious application of study) -- and little turns of phrase from them do come to mind in particular apt circumstances, whether I say them or not, and this is a pleasure. (The same thing surely happens with song lyrics that we have deeply ingrained -- we recognize a whiff of a similar circumstance and a turn of phrase pops up.) Probably you either have a mind that holds on to particulr phrases or you don't, but I do recommend occasional memorization -- it really is a luxurious treat to be able to revisit favorite poems or stretches of prose, whether you share that with others or not.
posted by acm at 6:53 AM on January 24, 2013

My boss and I do this from time to time, but only because we're both total lit geeks. Know your audience.
posted by smirkette at 7:14 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

People who grew up in churchy homes quote from the Bible a lot, and not just because some of the phrases have entered the common parlance, but because they have heard Bible verses over and over. Same goes for people with degrees like Classical Tripos from Cambridge (UK). They have an education that emphasizes going through the same texts over and over and they will bust out with a Greek or Latin phrase almost unconsciously. A lot of these people are older generation obviously. The counterpart now is people who (as suggested above) can quote extensively from TV and movies.
posted by BibiRose at 7:19 AM on January 24, 2013

I do this a little bit. Some things that I especially love that are apt to come out of my mouth might be like "The world is too much with us, late and soon" or "Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward," and the like.

This isn't the result of intentional effort to pepper my conversation with literary references. It's just a byproduct of loving to read, reading a lot, rereading a lot, and in fact memorizing some sections of poems or sentences or Bible verses just because I really love them and wanted them to be in my head, intact.

Memorization and recitation is a fantastic ability to have, and I think it would be really good if more teachers and parents encouraged it as a habit.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on January 24, 2013

Yes, I quote literature in conversation.

No, I don't memorize quotes for the sake of being able to bring them up later.

It's just that I love to read, and I enjoy remembering the best bits of what I read, and sometimes things remind me of those bits that I remember and I like sharing them and bringing the connections together.
posted by 168 at 7:41 AM on January 24, 2013

My husband does, but rarely. Memorably, he talked about our wedding being 'public like a frog.'
Which was a perfect analogy for the event. Very apt, but from a poem I had never heard of.

Something came up in conversation last week and inspired my father to throw in an entire Kipling poem about a man who was restationed to Quetta and died in the horrible climate there, and his wife back home was clearly partying with the superior officer who had sent her husband away...
I have no idea how he could remember all that, clearly from a long time ago and five or six stanzas. Definitely a conversation stopper.

Every day's an education 'round my house.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:08 AM on January 24, 2013

Very rarely and only short quotes. On seeing this casino, I called it a "stately pleasure dome."
posted by exogenous at 8:13 AM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

This used to be a Thing, but not any more. In times past, as part of their education, kids were forced to memorize poetry, scripture, Shakespeare and other literature; so they were able to regurgitate this stuff in later years. Now, not so much.
posted by Rash at 8:33 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

What Rash said. Even in my father's (1928-2010) day, memorizing and reciting poems was part of the school curriculum throughout primary and secondary grades. My father had had to learn "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in I think eighth grade, and he would often recite it when we were driving through bad traffic or inclement weather.

There are a few poems I recite (or more generally, parody) when it comes up. "This is just to say" by William Carlos Williams seems to surface when we have some prized leftovers. "I'm nobody, who are you?" happens a lot, but with "blog" for "bog" most of the time. "Gubbinal" by Wallace Stevens ("That strange flower, the sun/Is just what you say./Have it your way./The world is ugly,/And the people are sad.") helps me exorcise excessive cynicism.

But I am pretty enmeshed in literature. Lots of people I know quote lengthy bits from movies. Same thing, it's just what sticks in your mind.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:45 AM on January 24, 2013

I do know someone who memorized some favorite poems so she could recite them to herself during chemotherapy, which I thought was lovely.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:46 AM on January 24, 2013

If by literature you mean The Simpsons, then yes. But I think that's the modern version.

I occasionaly will quote Pride and Prejuidice. "I give you leave to like him, you've liked many a stupider person."

There are things that will resonate with you, and you'll find them creeping into your language.

So sometimes it's Shakespeare, and sometimes it's, "I'd like some taquitos."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2013

I use quotes from literature from time to time, but most of the quotes I use are the same quotes everyone uses. In other words, the bits of Hamlet I can remember and throw into a conversation come not from having read (which I've done) and memorized (which I've not) the play, but from hearing other people use them similarly out of context. IOW, if you want to pepper your conversations with erudite quotes, don't read Shakespeare; read Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Except "Oh, that this too, too solid flesh...", which I can always dredge up because a friend in high school recited it repeatedly with the same affectation as is used in Monty Python's Fishy Fishy Fish sketch.
posted by drlith at 10:25 AM on January 24, 2013

I do this all the time, sometimes to a point I wonder whether anything good I've ever said is original, though I usually try (and often fail) to make the intrusion imperceptibly seamless.

It puts people off, too; for example, I seriously annoyed a conservative evangelical lifelong friend of my partner the other day by saying that Netanyahu is clueless in Gaza and likely to bring the whole rickety structure of Mideast peace down around everyone's ears if we don't do a better job of restraining him.
posted by jamjam at 10:38 AM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty much everyone I know who does this does it ironically, myself included, at least where Great Works Of Literature are involved. We know these things because we randomly absorbed them, not because they hold any great interest to us or because we majored in them in college.
posted by elizardbits at 12:41 PM on January 24, 2013

Russians do this a lot (or did in the previous century, when they were still deeply immersed in classic Russian literature—I don't know to what extent it's still true). In their case, it wasn't about impressing anyone, just establishing their bona fides as fellow members of the intelligentsia (and, of course, making an apposite point in memorable language). Mikhail Gronas has written well about this; I reviewed his book in this LH post.
posted by languagehat at 1:08 PM on January 24, 2013

I do this, but only with short quips that resonated with something I was going through when I read the text and have taken on those quips as shortcuts to explain what I'm feeling or as mantras. If it's more than a line or two long, even if I try to memorize it, it probably won't stay with me forever.

The ones I use the most: "My kingdom is not of this world" (which refers to Heaven, but I use it, say, when I'm stuck at work), "[I'm] not for all markets" and "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I'll also randomly quote Kerouac or old physicists - just anything I've read and liked and because I liked it, it stuck.
posted by dearwassily at 1:31 PM on January 24, 2013

My English Gran, who left school at 14, would quote The Lady of Shallot at times of turbulence: The mirror crack't from side to side/ A curse is come upon me cried/ The Lady of Shallot!
And in my old secondary school the clever kids would spice up their repartee with bits of set texts: 'Unlike you, I don't find my books in running brooks, I go to the library.'

But I prefer the classics."If you yield only to a conqueror, Red Sonia, prepare to be conquered."
"Klytus! Are your men on the right pills?"
"Bring me....the bore worms!"

"Hai shun shai" (apologies for writing that wrong.)

"Spoon no dey atall atall."
posted by glasseyes at 3:12 PM on January 24, 2013

I quoted Shakespeare this morning in rush hour traffic. Another driver merged in front of me but did it soooo slowly and with such hesitation that I had to rage: "If it were done when tis done then 'twere well it were done quickly!" And then I felt much better.
posted by kbar1 at 10:25 PM on January 24, 2013

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