Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Supersleuth Of Modern-Day Eloquence

Interview James Simpson

When Harvard professors of another era couldn't remember who said, "Where law ends, tyranny begins" (William Pitt, 1770), they'd ask John Bartlett, a bookseller in Cambridge, Mass. His classic "Familiar Quotations" is now 142 years old and in its16th edition.

But what if you can't recall who said, "a braille of umpires" (Walter W. "Red" Smith, 1976), or "the mother of all battles" (Saddam Hussein, 1991), or "What if someone gave a war and nobody came?" (Allen Ginsburg, 1972)?

About these ads

Try "Simpson's Contemporary Quotations," recently out in its fourth edition (HarperCollins, 1997). Simpson's specializes in not-yet classic remarks of the 1950s to '90s, which the Rev. James Simpson says are "given only standing room" in Bartlett's, a book he nevertheless reveres.

While some say that the history of our age will be told in images, Mr. Simpson insists that "quotations take up where pictures leave off" and often take on "more profound meaning as time passes."

"Readers should always come away from a news story with a quote in mind," he says, even if the report is on TV. "You shouldn't come away from a report on the 'Sermon on the Mount' without remembering the Beatitudes."

He began collecting apt or well-turned phrases while working on the picture desk of United Press International in the early 1950s. "Although I had quickly become mesmerized by news pictures, I had also come to realize that the words of these key players were often more telling than their faces," he says.

At the same time, he briefly earned $15 a week prepping the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Groucho Marx to answer questions on the best quote of the previous week for one of the first TV panel shows, "Who Said That?"

As panelists on the show, "they became terribly impressive even though some never read a newspaper," he says.

A native of Arkansas, Mr. Simpson trained as a journalist, wrote for UPI and the Associated Press, and segued to corporate public relations, before a quantum leap to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967.

About these ads

"Advertising appeals to less-than-enduring values, the spur-of-the-minute decision, and keeping up with this wicked world. It made me want to concentrate on life's spiritual dimensions," he says during an interview in his home, just down the hill from the National Cathedral - a favorite destination for afternoon walks.

He found a publisher for his first book of quotations with the support of a letter from "Who Said That?" panelist John Mason Brown, "who had the bad fortune to be trapped on a train to Connecticut with me."

The first edition covered three years, 1954-56; the 1964 edition financed his seminary years.

A 'splendid misery'

He describes his lifelong fascination with the words of others as "a splendid misery." "If you set yourself the task of documenting what people are saying, it dominates your life," he says.

Unlike other top wordsmiths, he works without research assistants. To keep up with the best words of the day, he reads The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, daily; on Saturdays, a week's worth of the Times of London, The Christian Science Monitor, Japan Times, the Guardian Weekly, The International Herald Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal.

He also scans 10 weekly magazines, 10 monthlies, and transcripts of 60 Minutes, 20/20, Dateline NBC, PrimeTime Live, and Sunday Morning television broadcasts. (Late-night comedy monologues are not yet part of the mix.)

There are 11,330 quotes in the latest edition of his book, and some 22,000 in a data base, where citations are copied, classified, and indexed, along with the context and source of each quote. The source is important, because it allows readers to read the phrase in context, he says.

Each subsequent edition involves choices of what is still apt or relevant. "I put files and quotes to marinate in time and see if they can stand the test," he says.

For example, Nikita Khrushchev was cut back in the 1997 edition: "We will bury you!" made it, but "If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you" did not. "People debase in news value," he explains. "I had to make choices."

The articulate sound bite

Despite much public discussion about how reading and writing skills have slipped in the United States, Simpson insists that eloquence is on the rise.

"We have become a more articulate society, speaking in more communicative, picturesque, and metaphorical ways," he says. "This may be a result of the ubiquitous sound-bite ... and the impatience of people to really listen to more than five words in a sentence."

But Simpson regrets that "we've lost the art of quietly putting ink to paper and mailing it. We've lost letters in our time."

Retired but still active in his church, Simpson is working on his millennium edition.

He says he would welcome letters from Monitor readers with suggestions - especially from anyone who knows the origins of the phrase, "Can he walk the walk and talk the talk?"

* His address: 4000 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20016. Or fax: (202) 244-5005.

From 'Simpson's Contemporary Quotations'

The life of a rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself, and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves.

- Bruce Springsteen, singer

Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.

- Gloria Steinem, feminist

When Gielgud speaks the line, you can hear Shakespeare thinking.

- Lee Strasburg, actor

Only when you are moved by a painting should you buy it. Being moved is what collecting is all about.

- Walter Annenberg, critic

A city that is as heartbreaking in its beauty as it is in its poverty and decay. It is still a city of dreams - promised, built, and broken.

- Ada Louise Huxtable, critic, on New York

If hope were an ocean, this month would bring its highest tide.

- Charles Kuralt, commentator, on September school opening

The journey, not the arrival matters; the voyage not the landing.

- Paul Theroux, journalist

The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

- Gerald Burrill, retired Episcopal bishop of Chicago (1984 edition)

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.