Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley; First Published in The Washington Post, January 21, 2002
The best things in life are free and there’s nothing new under the sun. One of these adages is thousands of years old and the other is a product of the twentieth century but could you tell which is which?
Were you ever told that a watched pot never boils or warned don’t count your chickens before they hatch? Probably about a thousand times. We learn these and other hackneyed sayings at our mothers’ knees and repeat them throughout our lives, in conversation, in print, and perhaps most frequently, silently to ourselves. So simplistic and cliched are the proverbs and aphorisms of our daily discourse that we never stop to recognize them for what they are: nothing less than the distilled wisdom of the ages and the unconscious underpinnings of our every day lives.
A little digging has taught me that the body of knowledge encoded in common proverbs represents a rich oral and written tradition spanning many centuries and cultures. These time-honored sayings embody universal truths honed by generations around the world. But every culture has its own proverbial spin so it’s no surprise that many of the adages that have thrived on American soil have a distinctly American flavor.
Benjamin Franklin popularized proverbs gleaned from a wide variety of sources in his “Poor Richard’s Almanack” which was published for 25 years beginning in 1732. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise exemplifies Franklin’s emphasis on clean living and thrift. Thrift is the theme of many proverbs that have thrived in this country: a penny saved is a penny earned; waste not, want not; neither a borrower nor a lender be and a fool and his money are soon parted. Promptness is another topic of oft-used proverbs: the early bird gets the worm; you snooze you lose but also better late than never.
Business before pleasure may approach the status of a national mantra but we are reminded that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Many proverbs address the importance of setting priorities (don’t put the cart before the horse and first things first) and persistence (practice makes perfect, if at first you don’t succeed, try try again and where there’s a will there’s a way). Taking timely action is also urged in aphorisms such as: a stitch in time saves nine; don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today; there’s no time like the present; and strike while the iron is hot. Anyone who saw the movie Dead Poets Society will never forget Robin Williams admonishing his students to seize the day (carpe diem).
Patience, humility and caution are extolled in many maxims. Haste makes waste, pride goeth before a fall, better safe than sorry, don’t play with fire, look before you leap and curiosity killed the cat. Learning to accept our own limitations is another rich proverbial vein: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink; you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; you win some, you lose some; don’t cry over spilled milk.
Who could argue with the sage advice an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, an apple a day keeps the doctor away or laughter is the best medicine?
Many proverbs urge kindness and respect for karmic laws, including the biblical “golden rule”: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself, one good turn deserves another, live and let live, forgive and forget, you reap what you sow, what goes around comes around and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones represent age-old global wisdom. Honesty and integrity are urged in the sayings honesty is the best policy, practice what you preach and actions speak louder than words.
Experience as teacher is another universal theme: Live and learn; seek and ye shall find; when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Adversity can be especially instructive: necessity is the mother of invention and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In dealing with life’s challenges we are urged to keep our perspective: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
Our popular culture may enslave us to image over substance but our old chestnuts urge the reverse: don’t judge a book by its cover, beauty’s only skin deep and all that glitters is not gold.
Proverbs have a lot to say about the complexities of collective energy. No man is an island; two heads are better than one; united we stand, divided we fall. However, too many cooks spoil the broth and one rotten apple spoils the barrel. Birds of a feather flock together but opposites attract.
On matters of the heart we readily acknowledge that love is blind and love conquers all. However we may only grudgingly agree that all’s fair in love and war and while we hope that absence makes the heart grow fonder we may worry about the implications of the contradictory adage – out of sight, out of mind.
In this country we are in the unexpected position of having to come to terms with war and related uncertainties. Even in the information capital of Washington, the phrase no news is good news suddenly resonates. People in tough times have drawn comfort from the time-honored phrases this too shall pass, the darkest hour is just before dawn and time heals all wounds. Those of us who are desk-bound may want to contemplate the wisdom of the aphorism – the pen is mightier than the sword. In response to the bleakest news many of us are finally learning to stop and smell the roses.
Getting back to the phrases the best things in life are free and there’s nothing new under the sun – the first is a baby among proverbs, dating to a Broadway musical of the 1920s, and the second appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Their timeless appeal is the common link. An unscientific survey of familiar proverbs leads me to conclude that most of our old chestnuts date back several hundred years. The Bible, Chaucer and Shakespeare are among the richest literary sources of proverbs and several available books identify origins and compare proverbs cross-culturally. In the current French film, Amelie, familiarity with proverbs is presented as a test of character and the sayings featured are several of those that are favorites here.
However, from when and where these helpful phrases come matters less than how they come to you. Just pluck them from the air; like all the best things, they’re free.
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The Proverbial Word to the Wise
Copyright 2002 by Melanie Choukas-Bradley
Splitting Semantic Hairs. The words proverb, adage, maxim and aphorism, which are used interchangeably here, are pretty much synonymous. A proverb, according to my dictionary, is “a short wise saying used for a long time by many people.” The definition of adage is nearly identical. Maxim is defined as a “short rule of conduct” with a stitch in time saves nine and look before you leap given as examples. The dictionary defines aphorism as “a short sentence expressing a general truth, piece of practical wisdom, or the like.”
Digging Deeper. To learn more about these pithy phrases, whatever you choose to call them, visit a local library or bookstore. The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman and the Oxford University Press A Dictionary of American Proverbs edited by Wolfgang Mieder and others are excellent resources that trace the history of common proverbs. Local libraries have books on traditional sayings from many cultures that range from simple picture books to in-depth texts. Some are available in their native languages.
The trail of the old chestnuts is a never-ending one that can carry you around the globe, through time and, appropriately, drive you a little nuts. Still waters run deep, where there’s smoke there’s fire, a rolling stone gathers no moss… the metaphorical highway rolls on and on but since space does not may I simply observe that all’s well that ends well.