Like most people, I’d like to do something memorable, to be known for something. Something good, of course. It’s easy to be remembered for some horrid thing. Those are fairly easy to do, but I’m not of that stripe, fortunately.
As with most lawyers, I think I could be a writer or even should be one. Writing–good writing, that is–requires work ethic and inspiration, neither of which I possess in plentiful amounts. To write well, or “good” as a poor writer might say, research are at least interesting life experiences are also required. Plus, writers often must suffer for their art. Suffering holds little interest for me. Writers are also often unappreciated during their lifetimes. I have absolutely no interest in that type of attention. Thus, I lack the basic skills required to be a successful writer.
I recently thought that I could make my mark by coining pithy sayings. I’ve been known to turn a phrase or two on occasion. Sayings, memorable quotes and random witticisms are much easier to compose than entire books or even novellas. Many people are known for saying things. Oscar Wilde, for instance, said many things, most of which were pretty funny. Of course, they also seem to have been designed to show that he was smarter than everyone else, which he probably was.
Here’s one I came up with: Ambition is the devil’s anvil. That was just off the top of my head! Amazing, huh? What does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe it means that if you are too ambitious, Satan will hammer you on his anvil into whatever he wants. It’s not very good, is it? Why? First off, you have to think too much about it. Second–and most importantly–no one knows who I am. What would I know of the Devil? If C.S. Lewis had said this, we might nod our heads, reflecting upon the wisdom of the great Christian apologist. If I say it, people ask me questions like “Does the Devil have an anvil?” or “What are you, a Communist?”
Thus, I am now perplexed by how to break into this world of wisdom. In this age of sound bites and brief attention spans, there should be ample opportunity. This post summarizes my thoughts on this complex subject. To determine where I fall short, I studied the vast universe of the quotable.
Literary quotes, of course, are fantastic. I could fill many volumes with the witty, inspiring or profound writings of others. Here’s a good one:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
This is a zinger. It’s not really a saying, as much as it is a literary quote, but it’s a good one. The main character in the book pretended to be a Nazi, and it turns that’s exactly what he was. Good stuff, but Vonnegut was a great writer. He could probably come up with things like this all day. Like I said, if I were a writer, this would take care of itself.
Already being well-known certainly helps. In fact, it may be the number one advantage you can have. If you have a certain amount of fame or notoriety, you can say things and people will like those things. How about this one:
“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Lombardi was not a writer, but was a great football coach. Although he’s been dead for over 40 years, he’s still thought of as the prototype for coaches–tough, demanding and a stern taskmaster. This is his most famous saying. It’s been quoted thousands of times. Alas, it makes little sense. If winning is, indeed, the only thing, isn’t it, by definition, everything? Also, winning isn’t really the only thing, is it? There’s losing. When Lombardi said that, there was no overtime in football. So, there was also tying. What was his point? He didn’t need one. He was Vince Lombardi.
Thus, it may be more about who says something than what they say. Try this one:
“A long time ago, being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everybody’s crazy.”
That’s so-so. But, if I tell you that Charles Manson said it, you pay attention. If Charlie thinks that, what’s the world coming to? Of course, we must be careful. Freely quoting Charles Manson isn’t advisable, even if he has the occasional gem. More importantly, looking to Charlie for wisdom is a bad, bad sign.
This last example points out a truism. Attribution is important–maybe the most important thing. Let’s say that I’m fond of this one:
“No one ever went broke spending other people’s money.“
If that was spoken by Barack Obama, many folks would become apoplectic. It would be quoted on social media and in campaign ads as proof of his socialist agenda. What if Ronald Reagan said it? Those same folks would think of it as wise counsel warning us that the government is stealing our money. What if–as is really the case–I said it? Then, you don’t give a damn. Of course, it may not be original to me, either. There are so many sayings out there that sometimes I’ll think I’ve come up with a pearl, only to realize that someone else said it or I heard it on TV.
A friend of mine recently said “I’m tired of wearing things.” Now, this makes little sense, especially considering that it was said in response to someone offering him a campaign sticker. If it had been said by–let’s say–William F. Buckley, it would be thought-provoking, perhaps. As it was, it only created an uncomfortable few moments of silence.
Some sayings have been around so long, we don’t who said them, like “A stitch in time saves nine.” What the hell does that mean, anyway? I think it means that if I’m industrious enough to sew up a small hole, it will save me the work of fixing a much bigger rip later. I’ve heard that, but I’ve never used it, and I probably won’t. With these types of adages, we just say “Someone once said…” or “You know what they say….” They and someone have much more credibility than, say, you or I do when it comes to wisdom.
There are snarky quotes, like Gore Vidal or Dorothy Parker might have said. “When a friend of mine succeeds, something inside of me dies.” Vidal said that, and I agree, especially if a friend of mine comes up with a catchy saying. But, one must first have a reputation of being either an intellectual snob (Vidal), a curmudgeon (Andy Rooney) or maybe just a bit disturbed (Truman Capote) for these to mean much. Otherwise, you just seem hateful and must be relegated to talk radio for your audience.
There is the Malapropism, as when Dan Quayle bemoaned that “It is terrible to lose one’s mind or to have no mind at all” or when President Obama referred to “56” states. In order to be known for a Malaprop, however, one must already have achieved some fame. Who cares if a nobody says something wrong? I had a client who once repeatedly said on the witness stand “that’s a mute point.” It wasn’t funny. It was annoying. If he had been the President, it would have been funny. Pretty simple. If you’re going to be famous for sounding like an idiot, be famous first. It is difficult–but not impossible–to become famous for one’s stupidity alone.
Movies are a great source of memorable quotes. Here are 10 of my favorites:
- “I’ve always been lucky when it comes to killin’ folks.” Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
- “It’s my way or the highway.” Patrick Swayze, Road House
- “They don’t even know I’m not in their f***ing Army anymore.” Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now.
- “Avenge me!!” Harry Dean Stanton, Red Dawn
- “Look what your brother did to the door!” Jim Sedow, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- “Lick my plate!” Bill Moseley, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2
- “Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes.” Abe Vigoda, The Godfather
- “She had good judgment if not particularly good taste.” Tim McIntyre (As Blue the Dog), A Boy and His Dog
- “You humans are stupid! STUPID!!” Dudley Manlove, Plan Nine from Outer Space
Since I am neither an actor nor a screenwriter, cinema isn’t available to me.
We quote songs. I like MacArthur Park (“Someone left the cake out in the rain….”). Bob Dylan had many good one (“Don’t wanna be bum you better chew gum”). The Doors alone will give you a vast library of quotes. There is an endless supply. Alas, I have no musical talent. This is not a possibility for me.
Of course, there are also the inane, useless sayings that no one claims, like:
- Whatever: I’m convinced this was coined for the sole use of my wife to make my flesh crawl.
- It is what is. This is the long form of “It is.” So what?
- We’ll agree to disagree. Really? Doesn’t that just mean we disagree?
- Too much information! If I were to post on Facebook that my new hemorrhoidal ointment was caused a severe rash, I would soon get this comment. There is no such thing as too much information. The more the better.
- Just sayin‘: This gem is added to the end of things that people say to reinforce that they are saying them, as opposed to acting them out in pantomime or interpretative dance. Most times it follows a caustic comment to connote that “just sayin'” is some type of qualification of the statement.
- “Know what I’m sayin’?”: This is a variety of the older “You know what I mean?” and the newer “Feel me?” If you could speak clearly, you would not have to ask me repeatedly if I know what it is that you just said.
- God is good. Okay, I know I’ve just offended a whole bunch of people, but I only hear that when good stuff happens. Of course, God is good! If God is a god, you better not being saying that He’s not. Don’t forget the smiting.
We also have famous last words. Some, like actresses Tallulah Bankhead (“Codeine…bourbon”) or Joan Crawford (“Dammit. Don’t you dare ask God to help me!”) are less than inspiring. Others are odd (James Thurber–“God bless. God damn”). Some are funny (Gen. John Sedgwick–“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist….”). And some are spooky (Victor Hugo: “I see black light.”). Regardless, they all have one thing in common. THEY ARE LAST WORDS! I’m not saving the good stuff for my last breath.
So, what do I do now? Well, I’ve come up with a short list of sayings, quotes, catchphrases and witticisms for all occasions. At least one of them has to catch on, but in case you don’t want to quote me, I’ve included in bold a more prominent person for attribution:
- He’s as useless as a blind guide dog. Walter Brennan
- A camel is just a swayback horse turned inside out. Junior Samples (Actually, I might have heard that on Hee Haw).
- Charity is God’s way of robbing us blind, assuming for a moment there were, in fact, a God. Ayn Rand
- The Government protects freedom like a jackal guards a meerkat. Ronald Reagan
- Never swim with sharks where there is a perfectly good boat. Harry Truman
- Never fight a man with a glass eye (I mean don’t fight a man who HAS a glass, not don’t use a glass eye as a weapon, although that’s good advice, too). Mark Twain
- Don’t trust a woman who… aw, hell, just don’t trust a woman. Albert Einstein
- An atheist is a man whose God doesn’t exist. Billy Sunday
- Leave me alone (that’s not really a helpful saying. It’s just something I say a lot). J.D. Salinger
- You beat a man with a whip and that man likes a whip, you’re just making a fool out of yourself. (Okay, actually Charles Manson said that, but you can’t quote him, can you?). Andy Warhol
Feel free to use these any time, just be sure to give me proper attribution, unless of course you want to be taken seriously. Notice how I cleverly used only dead people as potential sources. As we lawyers know, the dead are defamation-proof. Remember, though, that I am a lawyer, and I will sue you if you steal my material.
So, I’ve made my contribution. Now, it’s up to the public to seize upon it. If they don’t, to Hell with them. You can quote me on that.