Their Oops? We'll Hear It Again and Again.

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

We talk a lot in this country -- free speech and all that -- and almost none of it is remembered. Talk shows. Blowhards. Scripted political blather. But once in a great while, someone says something truly memorable.

How can you forget this November gem from presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani?

Telling New Hampshire voters how he cleaned up New York city's tawdry streets while mayor, the Rudester said: "I took a city that was known for pornography and licked it to a large extent."

Well.

One of the things that humans do is collect things, and quotations that confront the human condition are among the oldest collectibles. They're free, they're easy to store, they cost little to maintain and when you pop one out in conversation, you can come across as profound. (Or just pompous. See: Will, George.)

So to save you the trouble, we've done the collecting for you! The Style List of the Top Five Quotes of 2007, suitable for framing!

You'll notice that these are all off-the-cuff remarks, instead of excerpts from prepared speeches, which is the trend these days, says Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations and an associate librarian at that university. Decades ago, Americans went for the inspiring, the profound, the artistic. "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." "I have a dream." "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." For sheer nihilism, there were Gary Gilmore's final words before a Utah firing squad, ending the national moratorium on the death penalty: "Let's do it."

But these days, people tend to favor the absurd, the notorious, the goofy. (There are exceptions. Todd Beamer's unforgettable last words on hijacked United Flight 93: "Let's roll.") But mostly it's all down-market irony and cynicism and the just plain cringe-inducing. "I'm the decider." "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

"It says something about our times that the top quotes of every year are the ones that are ridiculous," Shapiro says. "People say things now just to be outrageous or offensive, like Ann Coulter saying last year of the 9-11 widows, 'I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' death so much.' . . . Our political and cultural life has declined in a lot of ways."

To lodge in the pop cultural id, a year's-best remark for the Style list must work on several levels.

It has to catch something of the zeitgeist. It must reveal something of the speaker. It must be pithy, funny, inspiring, mean or appalling. It must resonate with the populace, and preferably say something about the larger society.

The best of these can become cultural reference points, says Grant Barrett, vice president of the American Dialect Society and host of the syndicated radio show "A Way With Words."


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