Media Coverage

Here is a sampling of articles citing the expertise of Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations:

New Book Takes Humbug Out of Quotations

A New Way of Verifying Old and Familiar Sayings (New York Times)

The news behind the net: Everything new is old, scholar’s searches find (USA Today)

THINK TANK: If There’s a Bug in the Etymology, You May Never Get It Out (New York Times)

If you are a member of the media and would like to contact Fred Shapiro, please email him at

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From Reuters, October 25, 2006

New book takes humbug out of quotations

By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Showman P.T. Barnum never said “There’s a sucker born every minute” although he wished he had. And Civil War Admiral David Farragut probably never said “Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead” — words that have inspired generations of fighting men.

To make things even more complicated, it is doubtful that Paul Revere warned that “The British are coming” when he would have at the time of the American Revolution thought himself British, although a revolting one. He probably would have said “The Redcoats are coming.”

A new, meticulously researched book of quotations attempts to set the record straight on those beloved phrases that have crept into everyday use as signs of wisdom and wit, including Sigmund Freud’s sage advice that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” (He didn’t quite say that, although his biographer thinks he would have approved of the idea.)

“The Yale Book of Quotations” has a simple thesis: famous quotes are often misquoted and misattributed. Sometimes they are never said at all but are, instead, little fictions that have forged their way into public consciousness.

Take, for example, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” a rallying cry supposedly uttered by Farragut during the American Civil War battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864.

According to Fred R. Shapiro, a Yale librarian and editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” it was a comment either never said or at least never heard on the day of battle. The first appearance of a partial version of the phrase came in a book published in 1878 but reports from the day of the battle never mention the phrase.


It can get “curiouser and curiouser,” to quote something Lewis Carroll actually did write. Gen. William T. Sherman did not quite say “War is hell” but those were words uttered by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Sherman’s version was a wee bit longer: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys it is all hell.” Close, but no cigar, as Groucho Marx might have said on his quiz show when someone failed to guess the color of an orange correctly.
Showman Barnum admitted during his lifetime that he never said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” although he thought he may have said, “The people like to be humbugged,” a less than ringing phrase.

According to research by Shapiro, the “sucker” phrase was probably uttered by a notorious con man named “Paper Collar Joe” and attributed to Barnum by a rival showman, who wanted to make him look bad.

To find out who said what and when they did it, Shapiro spent six years poring over hundreds and hundreds of databases, using advanced Internet searches as well as using the more old-fashioned methods of going through microfilms, dusty bookshelves and reading the 1,000 or so other quotation books that are out there to find out the truth.
For example, he went through all of Mae West’s pre-1967 movies to find out when she delivered one of her great sexual double entendres — “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me.” He said the line was not in any of her movies, including the one her fans swear it was in, “She Done Him Wrong.”

Instead, according to Shapiro, West used it to greet a policeman assigned to escort her. As she once said of herself, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
The result, after six years of research, is a 1,067-page quotations book with footnotes that are as fascinating to read as the quotes themselves.

Shapiro said he also had another goal: to represent popular culture in a quotations book, including advertising jingles and lines from popular songs and movies.

As a result, he is able to get in print a couple of famous quotes from Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington D.C.: “outside of the killing (Washington, D.C.) has one of the lowest crime rates in the country” and “Bitch set me up,” a comment he made when police arrested him for smoking crack cocaine.

Not quite the lofty Shakespeare-style of previous quotations books. But the Bard is in the Yale book as well with 455 citations, the most of any author.

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From the New York Times, February 1, 2001

A New Way of Verifying Old and Familiar Sayings

By Katie Hafner

The power and reach of online reference materials are a boon to today’s scholars and researchers. One intellectual gumshoe who is especially grateful for the advent of electronic resources is Fred Shapiro, an expert on quotations who is compiling the forthcoming Quotations: The Yale Dictionary.

The volume is intended to compete with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, the longstanding reference work of choice when it comes to checking the sources of writings and remarks.

Mr. Shapiro, who is an associate librarian at Yale Law School and works on the project in his spare time, has been at it for a year. He said the book would be published sometime in the next few years by Yale University Press.

The book will take a long time to compile, but not nearly as long as it would take without the electronic databases Mr. Shapiro has come to depend on.

For years, Mr. Shapiro, 46, carried out his work the old-fashioned way.

As an expert not only on famous quotations but also on words, phrases and legal citations, he used to spend hours and days at a time in research libraries, poring over books, journals, newspapers and periodicals for the origins of particular words and phrases. “Now it’s done in a few seconds,” he said.

Mr. Shapiro relies mainly on a database called Jstor, a digitized, searchable collection of scores of scholarly journals that go back to 1665.

“They have the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London back to the beginning,” he said, “so you can see Isaac Newton’s original papers. You can search a quotation and will see hundreds of years of material, and will see when it was first used.”

Mr. Shapiro has been preoccupied with quotations since he was 10, when his father gave him a copy of Bartlett’s. As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he gravitated toward language and literature and edited a quotation page in a student newspaper.

Although he received a law degree from Harvard, he practiced law only briefly before pursuing a master’s degree in library science at Catholic University of America. In 1993 he edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations.

Mr. Shapiro’s current project is by far his most ambitious effort. He appears to take particular delight in using electronic resources to correct Bartlett’s, his tome’s archrival. Using Jstor, for example, Mr. Shapiro tackled the famous quotation “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which Bartlett’s attributes to the economist Milton Friedman, who used the saying for a book of his that was published in 1975.

Mr. Shapiro’s research unearthed a 1952 mention in the journal Ethics, which referred to Professor Alvin Hansen’s “famous TINSTAAFL formula — `There is no such thing as a free lunch.’ ”

Justin Kaplan, the general editor of Bartlett’s, reacted with equanimity toward his new competitor. “Isn’t that interesting,” Mr. Kaplan said upon hearing of the misattributed “free lunch” quotation. “Well, that’s a valuable correction.”

Mr. Kaplan’s own research methods remain decidedly low-tech, he said, even as he prepares the 17th edition of Bartlett’s, scheduled for publication in 2002.

Aside from movie databases, which he uses to check quotations from films, Mr. Kaplan said he relied mostly on printed sources.

In addition to Jstor, Mr. Shapiro uses a free service called Making of America, which is maintained by Cornell University and the University of Michigan; a service called Literature Online; a database of legal quotations called HeinOnline; and Lexis- Nexis.

Mr. Shapiro is also a frequent visitor to a Usenet newsgroup called alt.quotations.

“You can see what the popular stuff is,” he said. “By using these state-of-the-art methods, I can be more thorough about reaching into this popular culture of things that might not be familiar to literary people and academics but are out there and very popular.”

Many popular quotations these days are related to the computer culture, Mr. Shapiro said.

Consider the quotation “information wants to be free,” a rallying catchphrase for the computer-adept and copyright foes. Mr. Shapiro traced the phrase to Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, who said it at the first Hackers Conference in 1984.

Mr. Shapiro has also explored the origin of the term “personal computer.” The Oxford English Dictionary says the term originated in 1976, but using Jstor, Mr. Shapiro found a 1968 Hewlett-Packard advertisement referring to some of the company’s calculators as personal computers.

The computer world is also rife with apocryphal quotations and lore, Mr. Shapiro said.

For instance, Kenneth Olsen, the founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation, is often cited as having once made a remark that is now considered scandalously shortsighted: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.”

And when talking about requirements for PC memory, Microsoft’s chairman, William H. Gates, is often cited as having said in 1981 that “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” PC’s now routinely contain at least 64 megabytes of memory, thanks in large measure to the huge amounts of memory required to run most Microsoft applications.

But Mr. Shapiro said he suspected that both quotations were fabrications. “From what I know about quotations, there are just some that smell of apocryphalness,” he said. “You can almost tell without looking into it that some of them are phony.”

Mr. Shapiro conceded that the ease with which he could do his job now occasionally felt like cheating. “In my youth I was an expert at traditional types of research,” he said. “Now there’s an element of it being a little too easy. You feel it’s not your own talents as much as the talents of the databases.”

Mr. Shapiro has also put up a Web site for the book ( People can go there to contribute quotations, in the unlikely event that Mr. Shapiro overlooked one.

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From USA Today, June 14, 2000


The news behind the Net
Everything new is old, scholar’s searches find

By Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY

The phrase “politically correct” may seem oh-so-late-20th-century. But no less a body than the U.S. Supreme Court used it in 1793, according to information Fred Shapiro, a Yale Law School librarian and researcher, found online using the Westlaw legal database.

While the Net has long been known as a great resource for people delving into current events, it also is gaining popularity among historians.

Shapiro has been using many databases available on the Net, albeit through paid subscription, to trace the origins of phrases and quotations for a book he is editing, the Yale Dictionary of Quotations.

“I think it’s very ironic that the Internet is generally very present-oriented and most of the people that use it are not that focused on history,” Shapiro says. “But because such a wealth of material is being made available, the Internet is actually becoming a very powerful tool for tracking down history.”

Other findings:

Who first used the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics”? Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli in his posthumously published autobiography in 1924. The earliest reference Shapiro could find came from an 1896 statistics journal that turned up in a search of JSTOR, a subscription Web site that indexes core scholarly journals.

“Multicultural” may have been the buzzword of the ’80s and ’90s, but Shapiro found it first being used in 1933.

Shapiro found the term “double standard” in a 1912 journal. And even then, it spoke of the “double standard” between men and women, he says.

President Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t the first to talk about the “United Nations,” either. “JSTOR has it being used in 1918,” Shapiro says.

“This kind of tool can tell you that ‘nothing is new under the sun,’ ” he says.

That quote? It comes from the Bible, and it’s hard to find databases that predate the Bible.

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From The New York Times, April 22, 2000

THINK TANK: If There’s a Bug in the Etymology, You May Never Get It Out

By Laurence Zuckerman

Last month Joe Trela became the third person to win $1 million on the hit television show ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” But while Mr. Trela’s final answer was correct, the question itself was wrong.

Mr. Trela was asked: ”What insect shorted out an early supercomputer and inspired the term ‘computer bug?’ ” His answer: a moth. And in 1947 a moth did find its way into the innards of the Mark II, an early computer (then called a ”relay calculator” and hardly a ”supercomputer”), shorting it out.

But that was not what inspired the term computer bug. Bug had been used to refer to mechanical flaws for decades before 1947; in fact, the I.B.M. engineers who helped set up the Mark II’s precursor, the Mark I, in 1944 had used it with reference to computers.

The story of the wayward moth is a particularly stubborn example of what is known as folk etymology. No matter what historians and researchers do to snuff it out, the pesky moth tale keeps coming back. ”This is the misconception of our time in terms of word origins,” said Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at Yale University and editor of a new book tentatively titled ”The Yale Dictionary of Quotations,” who has been swatting the story on and off for more than 16 years.

He pointed out that the Oxford English Dictionary includes a reference to an interview with Thomas Edison in an 1889 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette in which the inventor refers to finding a ”bug” in his phonograph. The article went on to define the term as ”an expression for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble.”

That the moth story has become so well established is largely due to the efforts of a pioneering computer scientist named Grace Murray Hopper. Ms. Hopper, who died in 1992, was a brilliant mathematician who helped invent the computer language Cobol and rose to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy.

She worked on both the Mark I and II and for years afterward liked to tell the story about the day — Sept. 9, 1947 — the moth was pulled out of the machine with tweezers. ”From then on,” she told a group of public school administrators in a 1981 speech on Long Island, ”when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.”

After the moth was plucked out of the Mark II, it was taped in a logbook with the notation, ”First actual case of bug being found.” The logbook is now in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History along with Ms. Hopper’s papers.

Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, curator of mathematics at the museum, said that the Hopper papers and other documents showed that the term had been used to describe computer problems by Ms. Hopper herself and others for several years before the moth incident.

”Let me put it this way,” Ms. Kidwell said. ”Dr. Hopper told a good story.”

So good, in fact, that the producers of ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” who say they verify each question with three sources, were reluctant to admit that they had made a mistake. (Mr. Trela’s million-dollar prize was never an issue because he gave the answer that the show considered correct at the time.)

”There is a popular belief based on a reality that a moth flew into an early computer,” Michael P. Davies, the show’s executive producer, said after being told of the mistake. ”In the world of the television quiz show, this is not something we would reverse ourselves on.”

Pressed with the evidence that the moth incident did not ”inspire” the term computer bug, Mr. Davies said he would look into the matter and might consider making a correction on the show’s Web site or mentioning it on the air when Mr. Trela returns next month for a special champions round of the game.

His reluctance supports a theory about folk etymology suggested by Ms. Kidwell. ”It is totally impossible to stamp out a false derivation,” she said, ”until people stop using the word.”