Friday, June 29, 2012

Mencken's dictionary

Two of the reference books I acquired early and used often were books of quotations. They were useful, of course, but also fun just to browse. One was Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, now in its 17th edition. I no longer have a copy, Googling having replaced my need for such a source. But I still have the other and it is indispensable. H.L. Mencken's New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles From Ancient and Modern Sources is, unfortunately, no longer in print. Terry Teachout celebrates "Mencken's Notable, Quotable and Witty Compendium" here:
.... The fathomlessly cynical Mencken wisely warned his readers in the preface that the "New Dictionary" was aimed at "readers whose general tastes and ideas approximate my own…. The Congressman hunting for platitudes to embellish his eulogy upon a fallen colleague will find relatively little to his purpose."

He wasn't kidding. Look up "Evolution," for example, and you'll find this 1925 statement by the Bible-thumping evangelist Billy Sunday: "If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar." Look up "Critic" and you'll be confronted with a rich catalog of ripe insults, among them this passage from Samuel Coleridge's "Modern Critics": "All enmity, all envy, they disclaim, / Disinterested thieves of our good name: / Cool, sober murderers of their neighbor's fame." Or check out "Irish," under which can be found no less than a page of invidious comments, including a sideswipe from, of all people, Gerard Manley Hopkins: "The ambition of the Irish is to say a thing as everybody says it, only louder."

Most delightful of all are the proverbs. According to Mencken, "Special attention has been given to the proverbs of all peoples, for in them some of the soundest thinking of the human race is embodied, and also some of the most pungent wit." No doubt, but Mencken is widely suspected to have coined a considerable number of them himself. The entry on "Marriage," for instance, ends with a page and a half of anonymous witticisms, including this "German proverb": "The bachelor is a peacock, the engaged man a lion, and the married man a jackass." I wouldn't be even slightly surprised if that particular "proverb" turned out to be the work of the waggish editor of the "New Dictionary of Quotations." .... [more]
The book cover is from my copy.

H.L. Mencken's New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles From Ancient and Modern Sources | Mencken's Notable, Quotable and Witty Compendium | Sightings by Terry Teachout - WSJ.com