Words of wisdom: a non definitive look at why we quote

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When you can’t find the words to say what you feel, finding a quote (profound, witty, or clichéd) on pretty paper or in a card has always made a great substitute. Words people can relate to either internally or externally, that trigger self-realisation, actualisation, understanding, and recognition of others are important to us. But why?

I’m not going to look at quotes for use in academic writing – that’s enough for a whole article all on its own and I am far from being an academic writer.

The purpose of this piece is to look at why popular quotes are so… well, popular and while I have put in my usual few minutes of GoogleSearch (as opposed to full on ReSearch – this is non-definitive history after all), this is my take on the topic.

Sometimes it’s hard to put into words the feelings, thoughts, epiphanies that are swirling around in our heads. So when someone else says something that resonates with us we want to keep those words. They may belong to someone else but they help us feel that we are not alone (in whatever it is we may be going through). They show us that others feel the same pain and anguish, the same happiness and love, wonder, disgust, understanding as we do.

All the quotes used in this post are ones I’ve searched for and chosen because something in them related to the images (and ticked a little box in my head). At the same time, the quotes are words that I wanted to share – not any old line I happened across. In a way, they are a broad reflection on the philosophies and values that form my thinking patterns.

Some might use quotes might be dropped into a conversation to make the person speaking seem intelligent and widely read. Unfortunately for me, I may be reasonably intelligent and I do read a lot, but I have a shocking memory and can’t remember a quote to save my life!

My children can quote liberally from their favourite movies and tv shows, and often use them as a private joke. I have no idea what they’re talking about yet they quote back and forth using the lines for a funny conversation. Their quotes (as well as the films they watch) reflect their fine sense of irony and sarcasm.

Proverbs are often quoted, it seems, by the older generation to the younger, with the hope that a lesson can be learned. Example,

  • Actions speak louder than words
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

We pass along words that we feel may help someone through a rough patch.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

Mumford & Sons

I believe that we quote “words of wisdom” to link to each other and to share emotions and feelings that we can’t find the words for in ourselves. Some thoughts are either indescribable or we lack the confidence in sharing our own words so we connect to a good quote as the reflection of our inner-self.

For further reading on why we quote, take a look at Ruth Finnegan’s “Why do we quote: the culture and history of quotation”.


Quote from novelist Ayn Rand.

Quote from novelist Ayn Rand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)