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Quote Unquote

What surprised us today is that paper, that most precious carrier of human thought, appears in the world’s famous quotations mostly in a negative frame. The most famous of these quotes is probably the following:

Guarantees which are not worth the paper they are written on. [Johann Bernhard, Graf von Rechberg, In a dispatch concerning the recognition of Italy (1861)]

A very witty or inadvertent variant of that one comes from Samuel Goldwyn, known for his colorful misuses of the English language, according to his biographer, A. Scott Berg:

A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. [Samuel Goldwyn]

Poor paper. When it is mentioned, always on paper, to be sure, and the bon mot always preserved for future reading on paper in turn, it is to emphasize its insignificance and to compare it unfavorably to the living tissue that it too, but the writer unaware of this, once had been. This wondrous quote from Ezra Pound is a worthy example:

And the betrayers of language
         ……n and the press gang
And those who had lied for hire;
The perverts, the perverters of language, the
         perverts, who have set money-lust
Before the pleasures of the senses;
howling, as of a hen-yard in a printing-house,
         the clatter of presses,
the blowing of dry dust and stray paper,
foetor, sweat, the stench of stale oranges.
         [Ezra Pound, Cantos XIV]

Papyrus, we regret to say, gets no mention in Bartlett’s, but parchment does better—even if, like paper, the spin is decidedly negative. Shakespeare gets the last word, as usually:

Is it not a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb shoud be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? [William Shakespeare, King Henry the Sixth, Part IV, ii, 88]


2 Responses

  1. This last quotation made during a time when parchment had other uses than our modern ones. Today a “sheepskin” with the appropriate “scribbles” will most often make not undo a man

  2. Here are two more quotations, each with a somewhat friendlier take on paper…

    “So often is the virgin sheet of paper more real than what one has to say, and so often one regrets having marred it.” [Harold Acton, 1948]

    “Ink and paper are sometimes passionate lovers, oftentimes brother and sister, and occasionally mortal enemies.” [Terri Guillemets]

    These two quotes were found on a quiet, friendly web site called The Quote Garden.


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