The Words We Live By

The Words We Live By

by Brian Burrell


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At one time, this nation held a profound and simple faith in the power of words. Today we have become so engulfed in public cynicism that the whole notion of "words to live by" seems to us impossibly naive.

Brian Burrell's splendid collection shows that many of the phrases we once lived by can still have resonance today. A comprehensive, fascinating treasure trove of American common sense and whimsy, The Words We Live By presents a sentimental rediscovery of a lost era in American history. From fraternal loyalty oaths to marriage vows, corporate mottoes to monument inscriptions, Ben Franklin to Henry Ford, Americans for generations have committed their most cherished ideals to print, often in charming and plain-spoken language that perfectly represents our provincial, pragmatic, and romantic national character.

Burrell's work was inspired by his father, an obsessive collector of words and a chronic nostalgia buff who traveled widely with his family, introducing them to the landmarks, monuments, and other symbols of America's past. Throughout his life, he clipped or wrote down memorable phrases, quotes, mottoes, and quips, both the silly and the profound, the playful and the maudlin. Burrell has lovingly compiled his father's collection of scrapbooks, complementing them with extraordinary research into the origins of America's civic ethics, to produce a truly memorable and inspirational work of historical reference. More than just a compendium of classic American wit and wisdom, The Words We Live By brings this material to life with poignantly told stories, forgotten anecdotes, and deeply considered meditations on the meaning of the words that have shaped the American nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781451646757
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 06/11/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Brian Burrell is a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is author of Merriam Webster's Pocket Guide to Business and Everyday Math. Raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, he currently lives in Northampton.

Table of Contents




Ready-made opinions in American culture


1. Do Unto Others

Words of Respect: The Evolution of the Golden Rule

2. We Hold These Truths

Words of Belief and Conviction: Creeds and Other Professions of Faith

3. So Help Me God

Words of Obedience: Loyalty Oaths and Pledges of Allegiance

4. 'Til Death Do Us Part

Words of Consent: Oaths of Citizenship, Rites of Secret Initiation, Temperance Pledges, and Wedding Vows

5. On My Honor I Will Do My Best

Words of Good Intent: Codes of Ethics and Conduct

6. To Thine Own Self Be True

Words of Experience: The Secrets of Success, Advice from Parents, and the Gospel According to Murphy, Parkinson, and Others

7. Semper Fi

Fighting Words: Mottoes, Maxims, and Slogans

8. In God We Trust

Words of Common Currency: The National Mottoes

9. Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Heat Nor Gloom of Night

Words Set in Stone: Architectural Inscriptions of the American Renaissance


Golden Rules


Oaths, Vows, and Pledges

Codes of Ethics and Conduct

Advice and Rules of Life

Mottoes, Maxims, and Slogans


Sources, Notes, and Comments



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