History repeats in pick of the quotable quotes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 1993, 12:00am

THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS, fourth edition (Oxford University Press, $425). THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF MODERN SLANG, edited by John Ayto and John Simpson (Oxford University Press, $240).

MORE than a century separates politician Alexis de Tocqueville's remark that ''history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies'', and novelist Julian Barnes' assertion that ''history just burps, and we taste again the raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago''.

Barnes' comments were made 133 years after the Frenchman's, but the essential point - that history repeats itself - is the same. But, as the Bible tells us: ''There is nothing new under the sun [Ecclesiastes 1:8].'' A flip through the 1,061 pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is to constantly come across these delightful nuggets of wit, insight, wisdom and observation culled from 2,500 people dating from the ancient Greeks to Baroness Thatcher.

There are many who would regard this weighty tome as a reference book for students writing essays, or speech-makers looking for some apposite quote to illustrate a point.

That would be like buying a Rolls-Royce only to use it for shopping; of course, it does the job, but you are scratching the surface of its potential.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is a mammoth compilation of man's fears and foibles; a collection of verse, sharp observation, mordant wit and philosophising that updates the last edition published in 1979.

In the preface, editor Angela Partington writes that a quote should be ''dateless and indisputably true'' as well as ''memorable, significant, important, famous or notorious''.

''Ideally, a quotation should be able to float free from its moorings, remaining buoyant when detached from its original context. It should be apposite, pithy, wise and of universal application.'' Quite right, too. But it is then strange to find rock star David Bowie's solitary entry is the line: ''Ground control to Major Tom,'' from his 1969 song Space Oddity.

While Bowie might be culturally significant, it is hard to find something that is ''dateless and indisputably true'' about this banal lyric, although the preface does admit not all entries will be to everyone's taste.

The return of song lyrics, including hymns, that were dropped from the third edition is justified on the grounds that with fewer people reading verse these days, not to have lyrics would ''exclude two of the richest and most heavily-worked seams in our culture''.

Perhaps with one eye to critics who would question inclusions like Bruce Springsteen's ''We gotta get out while we're young/Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run'', Partington points out that while some might throw their hands up in disbelief, the dictionary has to mirror the times.

Minor carpings aside, this is a wonderfully rich trove of more than 17,500 entries, with gems appearing on practically every page, like Spike Milligan's observation: ''Money couldn't buy friends but you got a better class of enemy,'' or L. Ron Hubbard's comment: ''If you really want to make a million . . . the quickest way is to start your own religion.'' Few people would be aware that Friedrich Engels, one of the founders of modern communism, was the source of a well-worn cliche - ''If you don't want to be frizzled in my frying-pan, you can take a walk into the fire.'' When confronted with a dictionary, few people lose the youthful habit of looking up the obscenities. One of the beauties of The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang is that some of the tartest and filthiest words you could dredge up from the English language are set out in the most scholarly fashion, including their entomology where possible.

We learn that ''arse'' was a perfectly acceptable term for the buttocks in Mediaeval English; the term ''gay'' had homosexual connotations at least as far back as 1897; and that the word gob (mouth) has been in recorded use since the 16th century.

The dictionary is not infallible; in the get-rich-quick climate of late-1980s Britain, a ''wad'' was slang for a thick roll of banknotes, ideally waved in the faces of the have-nots with a sneer on bearer's face. But here the only definition is the oldermeaning as a services word for a sandwich.

The omission is surprising, considering the dictionary is about as current as any reference book could be with the constantly-changing world of slang.

Slang is, as the introduction says, English ''with its sleeves rolled up, its shirt tails dangling, and its shoes covered in mud''. For those who enjoy ambling through the mire of English useage in a state of partial undress, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang is as fine a companion as you could wish for.