book reviews / quotes

Book Review: Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams

The Penguin Dictionary of EpigramsThe Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams

by Mark Cohen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

I browse the reference section of my local bookstore looking for any books to assist with my writing goals. I found M. J. Cohen’s The Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams (Penguin Books 2001) and stopped mid-stride, digging through my databanks for what-the-heck is an ‘epigram’. I should know that, right? The back flap says it’s ‘a short, sharp saying in prose or verse, frequently characterized by acidity or acerbity and sometimes by wisdom’.

Well that sounds good. I love that sort of conversation, enjoy using just that sort of retort in my blogging, comments and my novels.

I bought it and spent the next couple hours perusing the book. It includes an alphabetized list of epigrams by topic and theme, relaying both the quote, who said it, and in some cases the circumstances. I jomped to a few of my favorites to see what was included. Under ‘Excess':

Though shalt not carry moderation to excess (Arthur Koestler)

Under ‘Equality':

Men are born equal. By the next day, they no longer are. (Jules Bernard)

Under Government:

The only good government is a bad one in a Hell of a fright (Joyce Cary)

Under ‘Heroes':

Thoughts of heroes were as good as warming pans (George Meredith)

Under ‘Knowledge':

For knowledge itself is power (Francis Bacon)

Under ‘Kings, Queens, and Leaders':

The true leader is always led (C.G. Jung)

These are fine, but not what I was looking for. I wanted fireworks, gasps, profound brilliance from names I’d recognize. I moved to the Index where quotees were listed. These–to me–are better:

  • Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested (Winston Churchill on Education)
  • Every human being invariably exercises all the power of which it is capable (Thucydides on Power)
  • Civilization has made the peasantry its pack animal. The bourgeoisie in the long run only changed the form of the pack (Trotsky on Civilization)
  • It is possible to be a writer, but not to become one (Herman Hesse in Writing)
  • Sin is God’s private pasture; if you graze in its vicinity, you will run the risk of entering it (Mohammed)

What this told me about myself: I base wisdom heavily on who’s saying it. I had difficulty recognizing the brilliance of the epigram when it came from individuals I wasn’t familiar with, where the book turned into a page-turner when I discovered the index, allowing me to find people I knew and read their thoughts. As a result, this isn’t a reference book I use much–though I thought I would like seeing how respected intellects synopsized emotions and events in their simplest form.

What about you? Is that the way you catalog words? How important is it?

More posts about quotations:

Humorous and Inspiration Quotes–Part II

I Wish I’d Said That

Ten Favorite Quotes





Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Penguin Dictionary of Epigrams

  1. I do admire your reading-prowess and undoubted patience. I heard about ‘epigram’ but never ventured into it. I feel some of the epigrams will be useful/inspirational to me. Thanks for the prompt. Arun

  2. A whole book of these? Yowser! I keep a file on my computer of epigrams though I call them Pithy Quotes of the Day.
    I keep another file of my own, called Snippets. Mine are not as epigramish, but still, they’re mine.
    Sounds like another book I’ll have to buy. Sheesh.

      • Pithy quotes – epigrams – I think they are pretty much the same. It’s just that I labeled my computer file “Pithy Quotes.” It might even become the name of the protagonist of my new novel –
        One day, Pithy Quotes stepped out for his usual walk along the canal and found all the keel boats lying keel up on banks of mud, fish tales protruding around the boats like scaly gravestones. “That’s a fine kettle of dead fish you’ve gotten yourself into,” he said to the nearest keel.

        You’ll have to buy the book to read the rest.

        Why am I not posting? Because I am bound to a life I didn’t choose. Literally. Which means my literary ambitions have been scuttled by big responsibilities and little sleep. However, I am posting tomorrow. Have you considered my request? Please, please say yes.

      • Thank you, thank you, thank you. Easy to do. Would you be able to send me, via email, a brief bio?(I copied mine from earlier articles.) I need it by about 9 tonight – I know, so last minute. Took me a while to figure out this award and how to contact some people. Email me if you have questions.
        Adore me – whew! That is heady. Me feel same for you. <3

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