How to be quoted

Or, your ticket to the pantheon of wit

Enough already, Oscar Wilde. 

Pipe down, Dorothy Parker. 

Put a sock in it, Winston Churchill. 

Any collector of witticisms sees the same names over and over again. And yes, even when you remove the sketchy attributions, it’s clear that The Great Wits said more than their fair share of zingers. But that’s also why it’s so refreshing to come across a much-quoted line by a little-known wit. Like this gem:

“If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?” — Virginia Ostman

On the metric of pith per unit text, this ranks quite high. Yes, the formula quickly becomes obvious and yes, it owes something to P.G. Wodehouse, he of the classic line “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” But you have to hand to Ms. Ostman for squeezing every drop out of the premise.

Before we can hand anything to Ms. Ostman, though, we have to find her. And though her quip appears all over the place, she’s a digital cipher. Who was Virginia Ostman? A friend of Laurence J. Peter. And who was Laurence J. Peter? A Vancouver-born professor of education who wrote a satirical book on management that was accidentally taken seriously. That book, The Peter Principle, introduced the idea that we all rise to the level of our own incompetence. In other words, once you find a job you excel at, your superiors are likely to promote you out of that job and into something you can’t possibly do.

After The Peter Principle became a huge hit, Peter retired from teaching and wrote a couple more books. Among them was Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time, and therein you’ll find that Virginia Ostman line. As for who she was, the only clue Peter provides is this shrug in his introduction:

Some of the included quotes were derived from oral sources and include lines excerpted from lectures or other live performances, as well as from the utterances of friends and relatives. The only documentation I have for these quotes is my notebook. And sometimes my memory.

As we know, compilers of quotation books tend to play favorites. So it seems that the best way to join Wilde, Parker, and Churchill LLP is to know someone who regularly compiles witty sayings for a devoted readership. Hey, wait a minute! Reader, that’s you! Together we can escape the tyranny of the overquoted. Just hit reply to send me your overlooked zingers. I’ll highlight the best, and perhaps your quip will one day ricochet around the internet. Why, the next Virginia Ostman may be reading these words right now!

Quick quips; lightning

“In short, whoever you may be/
To this conclusion you’ll agree/
When everybody is somebodee/
Then no one’s anybody!

— W.S. Gilbert, predicting the rise of social media.

“Many excelled me: I know it. Yet I am quoted as much as they.”
— Ovid, suggesting that being quoted is not an indicator of excellence.

“When you see yourself quoted in print and you’re sorry you said it, it suddenly becomes a misquotation.” —Laurence J. Peter, quoting himself in Peter’s Quotations and perhaps proving the Peter Principle.

This concludes the 20th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly quoting of the famous, unfamous, and infamous.  I quoted them all in my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Show, don’t tell by tapping the ❤️below.

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