The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t quote me

Q: I hear the expression “don’t quote me” in the news almost every day. It seems so much a part of contemporary politics. Imagine my surprise to see it in The Semi-Attached Couple, an 1860 novel by the English writer Emily Eden.

A: Yes, the usage showed up in writing in the 19th century, and one of its earliest appearances was in The Semi-Attached Couple, which features a middle-aged husband and wife who have been compared to the Bennets in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed, it’s possible (though this is speculation) that the expression may even have appeared in an early, unpublished version of Emily Eden’s novel. Here’s the story.

Eden wrote an early draft of The Semi-Attached Couple in the 1830s, but the final, revised version wasn’t published until a year after the successful publication in 1859 of her novel The Semi-Detached House.

In an 1863 letter to her great niece Violet Dickinson, Eden says, “The ‘Semi-Attached Couple’ was written in that little cottage at Ham Common”—a rental cottage she stayed in for a few months in 1834. And in a preface to the published novel, she suggests that she changed it very little.

However, we don’t know whether the original draft included the relevant passage: “Lord Teviot is one of the worst specimens of the class dandy I ever saw; and I am much mistaken if his temper will not be a sad trial to poor Helen. However, don’t quote me.”

The earliest confirmed example we’ve seen for “don’t quote me” is from Christmas Festivities, an 1845 collection of stories and sketches by the English playwright John Poole:

“I’ll give you my opinion of that horse, but remember you don’t quote me afterwards—I’d rather not be thought critical about horses.”

The first example for “don’t quote me” in the Oxford English Dictionary (from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote on Oct. 1, 1927) uses the uncontracted “do not” in the expression:

“Clara was looking much better than when she came over and Virginia was looking very badly. But please do not quote me on this.”

The OED’s first contracted example is from A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), a Miss Marple mystery by Agatha Christie:

“You’ve no idea, Neele, how tired one gets of the inevitable weed-killer. Taxine is a real treat. Of course, I may be wrong—don’t quote me, for Heaven’s sake.” (We expanded the comment by Professor Bernsdorff, a pathologist, to Inspector Neel about the poison taxine.)

In that example, Bernsdorff uses “don’t quote me” to indicate he’s not yet sure whether taxine (a substance from the leaves, shoots, or seeds of the English yew) is the poison that killed the businessman Rex Fortescue.

The expression is now used in that hesitant sense as well as just to indicate literally that the speaker doesn’t want to be quoted.

When the verb “quote” showed up in English in the 14th century, according to the OED, it meant “to mark (a book) with numbers (as of chapters, biblical verses, etc.)” or to make marginal “references to other passages or texts,” but those senses are now obsolete.

English borrowed the verb in part from the medieval Latin quotare and in part from the Middle French quoter, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin quot (“how many”), which explains the early numerical sense.

In the mid-16th century, Oxford says, the verb took on its modern meaning: “to reproduce or repeat a passage from (a book, author, etc.); to repeat a statement by (a person); to give (a specified person, body, etc.) as the source of a statement.”

The first OED example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin: “The text [of the Bible] is throughout coted in the margin [of this book].”

(The OED cites the 1548 edition, but we haven’t been able to find it there. The passage was added in the 1552 edition, according to the historian John Craig in his 2002 paper “Forming a Protestant Consciousness? Erasmus’ Paraphrases in English Parishes, 1547-1666.”)

We’ll end with a more recent example from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita:

“Wow! Looks swank,” remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco as she crept out into the audible drizzle and with a childish hand tweaked loose the frock-fold that had stuck in the peach-cleft—to quote Robert Browning.

Nabokov isn’t literally quoting Browning here. He may be alluding to Browning’s various uses of “peach” in Pippa Passes, as in: “From a cleft rose-peach the whole Dryad sprang.” Nabokov may also be making a sly allusion to Browning’s mistaken use of the word “twat” in the same poem, an innocent blunder that we discussed in 2011.

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