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Living off borrowed words

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Social media has kicked off a new, high-growth ancillary industry — quotations. Incessantly through day and night, my mobile blinks as decorated Generals advise me on how to battle the problems of life, respected industrialists reveal the secret sauce of their success and former cricketers prop up morale by telling me that the match is not lost till the last ball is bowled. I doubt if this 24x7 exposure to great sayings has improved me as a person but it has convinced me of the persuasive power of quotation marks.

The quotation mark is a cut above run-of-the-mill punctuations. In its previous life, I am sure it was just a comma — one of scores strewn across the text. But inverted, elevated and paired with its twin, it confers gravitas to content. Epigrams become wittier because you know they are by Oscar Wilde, observations acquire depth and heft as they now have Einstein’s name appended to them, and when someone like Mother Teresa tells you how to turn compassion into action, who are you to argue?

To be honest, not all the things you read within those parenthetical commas are of particularly high voltage. As you sometimes react when you see perplexing examples of modern art, you feel you could have come up with similar stuff yourself. Alas, in the status-conscious, nomenclature-enamoured world we live in, what is said matters less than who said it. So unless your name happens to be Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rabindranath Tagore or equivalent, your compositions are going to find few takers.

Brand image

But look at the bright side — the population explosion of “authorities” gives you a larger arsenal to choose from when you are heatedly arguing a point and looking to deploy heavy artillery. Apart from helping you score points off friend, family or foe, quotations can work wonders for your brand. Imagine you are trying to uplift everyone’s mood in these uncertain times. Instead of the usual “hum honge kamyab”, you bring in Tagore: “Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” Your brand value will shoot through the ceiling.

Modern technology has made the quest for quotes easy — just key in the appropriate word, and the genii of search engines will do the rest. If luck favours you, you will locate a line that speaks your mind in memorable fashion. If that doesn’t work, you will need to make your own luck. In other words, necessity will make you the mother not just of invention but a quotation.

Don’t be overly bothered about the scruples of putting your own spin on history. Social media is brimming with what could be called the illegitimate offspring of intellectuals. You have Voltaire on your side — “What is history,” the French thinker had said, “except a fable that’s agreed upon!” For the record, this quotation itself is a matter of dispute.

Was it by Voltaire, Napoleon, Fontenelle or Emerson? Nobody is sure, and frankly not many are bothered. All it proves is that what really matters is neither the creator nor the content but the quotation mark.

jairam.menon@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 11:23:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/living-off-borrowed-words/article34797675.ece

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