To Quote: Quirks and Perks

“… to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.”—Alberto Manguel


Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.

Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.

She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.

There are two ways to reach for context: directly, using testimony to quote the past, and indirectly, using prosopopoeia to fabricate the present.

Contrary to appearances, the two rhetorical devices are not at odds: the soft fiction of prosopopoeia and the hard fact of testimony overlap in many places, some obvious, some unseen: the way the sea meets the coast at the beach, at the cliff, and in the deep, where the continental shelves kiss. Most non-fiction is built directly on testimony, most fiction on prosopopoeia—but they are inseparable.  (I discuss their hybrids in this post.)

On a grand scale, testimony guards the gateways of Memory, and prosopopoeia is the figure of Fiction, the magic wand that allows us to conjure up masks for us and others. As such, the prosopopoeia of today can become the testimony of tomorrow, and all the more readily if written down.

Therefore, to be remembered, write.


Reading Recommendations

  1. The Library at NightAlberto Manguel.
  2. Tolkien’s Fox, QQ. A curious example of prospopoeia in fiction. 
  3. Allegory meets Tolkien’s Fox, QQ. A couple of examples of prosopoeia and testimony hybrids.
  4. Opium Meets Classical ReadersQQ. A study of testimony in De Quincey’s book on opium.


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

9 thoughts on “To Quote: Quirks and Perks”

  1. There is one phrase that I read frequently but usually it is only writers from England. (I use that awkward phrase rather than the phrase ‘English writers’ which is delightfully ambiguous) The phrase is something like “there was a door( or window) which gave onto an old garden” The word gave seems very strange to me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s lovely! So pleased. Feel free to share random thoughts on random posts whenever you fancy it—always very welcome. Others might enjoy it too; as for me, it will be input for who-knows-what who-knows-where who-knows-when. I cast my nets far and deep. (In fact, anyplace I get a chance.)


    1. I was curious … gave onto or give onto seems to have as its primary usage what you said, although curiously it’s absent from the OED. I then hopped onto google ngram viewer, to see how often those two combinations cropped up in the corpus of English literature. Here’s the graph.

      It’s on the rise! And what a rise it is. (A bit of a popularity bump for gave onto in the 40s but we’re way past that.) Also, I then went and changed the corpus, from general English to either British English or American English, and paid attention to what the numbers say on the left. It seems to be more popular in American English than in British English … I wasn’t trying to prove a point, I was just curious to see what the number crunching would produce. How to interpret the results? No idea, but I thought you might want to see them.


      1. Thanks so much. I am surprised it is more common in American English. I haven’t read all that much American English since John Steinbeck stopped writing novels and it certainly wasn’t in any of Sinclair Lewis’ books. I find it to be an ‘uncomfortable’ construction. But I haven’t had so much fun thinking about words for such a long time. And it’s all your fault.

        Liked by 1 person

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