The Language Perfectionist: If You Love Words of Wisdom…

Mardy Grothe, a friend and fellow language enthusiast, specializes in creating collections of great quotations. Within each of his books, all the quoted passages share a unifying theme.

His latest work, just published, is called Ifferisms. What’s an ifferism? The word is Mardy’s own coinage. It’s an aphorism that begins with the word “if.”

A surprisingly large number of quotations follow this format. In his book, Mardy has assembled almost 2,000 and organized them into chapters. The topics range from politics to sports, and from business to sex. Among those quoted are Woody Allen, Dale Carnegie, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Thomas Jefferson, Stephen King… and hundreds of others.

In epigrams and proverbs, the “if” element implies that things might be different than they are. It suggests the conditional, the hypothetical, the imaginative. Thus, many sentiments phrased in this manner are positive, uplifting, and inspirational. “I have come to believe,” Mardy writes in the Introduction, “that if is the biggest little word in the English language.”

To support that assertion, here are a few examples from Ifferisms:

  • “If you are able to state a problem, it can be solved.” — Edwin H. Land
  • “If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” — Donald Trump
  • “If you are guided by opinion polls, you are not practicing leadership — you are practicing followership.” — Margaret Thatcher
  • “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” — P.J. O’Rourke
  • “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin

But the most famous example is surely Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” Mardy calls it “one long ifferism… a magnificent tribute to many of humankind’s great virtues….” I remember reading this classic as a child. I hope it’s still taught in schools, and hasn’t been replaced by studies of hip-hop music and graffiti. Here’s an excerpt:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”….

Kipling’s “If” was first published in 1910, so this coming year marks its 100th anniversary.

Unlike most anthologies, Ifferisms goes beyond telling us what was said and who said it. Mardy often adds commentary on the meaning and background of each passage, biographical facts about its author, notes about related quotations, and more.

You probably won’t endorse every observation in this book. I disagreed with some of them. But you’re bound to find Ifferisms provocative — and you might even discover something that changes your life.

Of course, this review has to end on an “if” note. So…

If your gift list this year includes people who are literate and literary, who appreciate the power and rhythm and meaning of the written word, Ifferisms is the perfect stocking stuffer.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]