Short is sweet

Christopher Ricks

  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs edited by J.A. Simpson
    Oxford, 256 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 19 866131 2
  • A World of Proverbs by Patricia Houghton
    Blandford, 152 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7137 1114 0

The alphabet does happy things. The first entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is able to give unforced priority to some of the most important properties of proverbs. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ First, that it is more recent than you think (c.1850). Second, that nobody has ever heard of the talented person who endowed it with the anonymity of genius (T.H. Bayly). Third, that – divinely wise – it sprang full-grown from its creator’s head; perfect, just like that. Fourth, that it evokes what for some is the glory of proverbs and is their ignominy for others. The Observer in 1923 waxed: ‘These saws are constantly cutting one another’s throats. How can you reconcile the statement that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” with “Out of sight, out of mind”?’ Later in the book, there appears another of the newspaper’s rhetorical questions: ‘What is the use of saying that “Many hands make light work” when the same copy-book tells you that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”?’

Proverbs themselves are inimical to rhetorical questions. ‘Why buy a cow when milk is so cheap?’. ‘One of the few proverbs in the form of a rhetorical question; cf. Why keep a dog, and bark yourself?’ Such questions are not natural to the proverb because they insinuatingly coerce instead of straightly asseverating.

‘Dreams go by contraries’ (evolved since 1400). ‘Without Contraries is no progression,’ announced the author of the Proverbs of Hell, in the knowledge that it was the prevalence of Proverbs of Heaven which made it necessary for him to issue some of the other sort. So that when Edward Bond appropriated Blake, ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ he vitiated it with his tacit pretence that the prevalence in our day is that everyone is going about nursing unacted desires. Given these contraries, it will come as no surprise that of each of those properties of proverbs, the contrary could be said. First, that a proverb is older than you think. (‘Rome was not built in a day,’ 1545). Second, that everybody has heard of the genius who endowed it with the anonymity of genius. Alexander Pope, say, for his ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Or for ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing,’ which anybody with any learning or knowledge knows to be the right reading, with ‘little’ alliteratively locked to ‘learning’, with ‘dangerous’ lengthily isolated (as it isn’t so much if ‘knowledge’ shares its n and d and g), and with ‘thing’ as a lopped off-balance rhyme with ‘learning’. Which said, and then coming as a rebuke to such scholarship or criticism, the proverb now stands under ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ with the note: ‘The original learning is also used instead of knowledge.’ Patricia Houghton’s genial anthology by topics, A World of Proverbs, gives both forms, more than thirty pages apart and both unattributed.

Third of the contraries, a proverb doesn’t spring complete but is rolled and rounded into its perfection of laconic utterability. ‘Tomorrow never comes’: there are citations from 1523, 1602 and 1678 before Franklin gets it right, in 1756. Fourth, a proverb need not have any counter-proverb against which to brace itself.

‘Life begins at forty,’ the world was told in 1932. The prophetic W.B. Pitkin went on: ‘Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.’ Today it is something better than an axiom: a proverb – that is to say, half a truth. Proverbs are undeceptive half-truths, so they themselves need counter-descriptions. They need sometimes to evolve over the years, because otherwise they would not be folk-formed. They need at other times to issue fully-formed, since otherwise it might falsely seem that the folk could be formed other than of particular folks. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs brings home the way in which tradition and the individual talent can converge in that astonishing thing, a well-nigh instant authentic tradition. ‘It is a reflection of the proverb’s vitality that new ones are continually being created’; on the other hand (a proverb is a one-handed engine), ‘a proverb is a traditional saying which offers advice or presents a moral in a short and pithy manner.’ A tradition newly created? We all know the factitious forms of this: From today it will be a tradition in this school that no one except a prefect walks on the lawn. But the proverb that is newly unroyally minted is a reminder that any tradition must start somewhere and somewhen.

Instant tradition would be an overstatement, but it is amazing, the speed with which a new saying can become traditionally authoritative. One reason why Pope was so good at uttering sentences which at once entered upon proverb-hood was that for him, after all, wit was what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. Keats too, who loved proverbs, possessed a belief about poetry which permitted of its being a true sibling of proverbs: that it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.

It took little time for Edward Young’s fully-formed new sentence, ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ (1742), to become tomorrow’s proverb. ‘Old soldiers never die’ (Foley, 1920) is undying. ‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’ (Kipling, 1911) will last as long as the war between the sexes, and ‘It takes two to tango’ (it took two, Hoffman and Manning, 1952) will last as long as the old dance. This dictionary reminds us not only that many a proverb coined its age-old wisdom quite recently (‘A change is as good as a rest’ began its evolution in 1895), but that the very recent past is surprisingly fecund, given that proverbs are not supposed to be our age’s format for wisdom. ‘If anything can go wrong, it will’ (1949?). ‘The family that prays together stays together’ (1947). ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’ (1969). ‘If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’ (1952). ‘The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings’ (1978). ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’ (1966). ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ (1964): or, do preparedly programme the thing properly.

This dictionary is an excellent accession to the Oxford list of the best dictionaries there are. It is in part an abridgment of the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, but it has a different aim – to record the thousand or so proverbs that are current in the 20th century; and so it has different emphases and inclusions, while maintaining standards of verified dating and citation (including old spelling and succinct notes), right down to 1981. Like any good reference book, it is as rangingly suggestive as it is closely stated. There are wide social implications to the smallest notations: such as that in ‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ ‘can’t’ for ‘must not’ is a recent development (1888); that ‘Boys will be boys’ evolved from ‘Youth will be youthful,’ via ‘Girls will be girls’; that ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ was ‘originally applied specifically to (young) women’; and – most surprising of the entries that may variously be held to manifest sexism or a reversed sexism or the defeat of sexism – that ‘He who hesitates is lost’ in its early uses referred ‘specifically to women’.

Again like any good reference book, this dictionary is ideal for family wrangles. There would now – if human nature were other than it is – be no more disputing about the meaning of such gnomes as ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ or ‘The exception proves the rule.’ It is good to know where to turn for such facts as that the injunction not to spoil the ship for a ha’-porth of tar was originally sheep-shape, ‘tar being used to protect sores and wounds on sheep from flies’; that the attribution to Napoleon of ‘The English are a nation of shopkeepers’ is up against variant forms from 1766 and 1776; that an injustice may have been done to Sir Robert Walpole (‘All those men have their price’); that ‘It is the first step which counts’ gets its power from the miracle that followed St Denis’s execution – ‘Afterwards he picked up his head and walked for six miles’; that nobody ever quite set down the words ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ though millions have since said it; that ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’ ought to be scotched as a Sassenach asininity, since a mickle is a muckle (try ‘Many a little makes a mickle’); that there is no Chinese origin for ‘One picture is worth a thousand words’; and that ‘Never give a sucker an even break’ has its oddities: ‘It was popularised by Fields, who is said to have used it in the musical comedy Poppy (1923), though it does not occur in the libretto.’ All of which adds up to the other thing about a good reference book: that it is multifariously comic.

Witty, too. It might seem an in-house joke for a Concise Oxford Dictionary to illustrate the proverb ‘A great book is a great evil’ with this, from the preface (1933) to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘If there is any truth in the old Greek maxim that a large book is a great evil, English dictionaries have been steadily growing worse ever since their inception more than three centuries ago.’ But the joke is right, since a proverb is often slyly self-referential. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ gets not only authority but comedy from its own brevity. Proverbs are inherently convinced, and therefore convince, that ‘Small is beautiful’ (1973). There are many proverbs that praise the little (‘The best things come in small packages,’ ‘Least said, soonest mended,’ ‘A mouse may help a lion’); many that are bravely modest (‘One step at a time,’ ‘Let well alone,’ ‘You cannot get a quart into a pint pot’); and many that belittle the large or loud (‘Much cry and little wool,’ ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’). Proverbs, which know how to teach the truth wisely, have a special place for the words ‘know’, ‘teach’, ‘truth’ and ‘wise’.

But again the contrary is true too, and a proverb will delightedly announce something which is comically yet not nonsensically a contradiction of its own nature. So it will muster its words to tell you that a word is worth a ten-thousandth of a picture, or that ‘Actions speak louder than words’ (even these ones), or to issue the precept that ‘An ounce of practice is worth a pound of precept.’ Scratch a Cretan liar and you find that truth lies at the bottom of a well-turned paradox. ‘Experience is the best teacher’ – not any utterance about experience. We learn from experience that we never learn from experience. ‘What is new cannot be true’: the citations from 1639, 1791 and 1880 don’t quite say this, which leaves the first consummated citation to be the one from the Times in 1928 which speaks of someone’s falling a victim ‘to the old slogan “What is new cannot be true.” ’

A proverb, as you would expect from what it says about experience, is experiential; it is the incarnation of the non-theoretical and the non-philosophical. It supposes (the supposition being half a truth, which is why we need philosophy as well as proverbial philosophy) that life’s difficulties have a more immediate claim upon us than do life’s problems. That a proverb is contradicted by its half-brother is evidence that the crucial thing is applicability. A proverb always tells a truth but not necessarily the truth. The acknowledged existence of counter-proverbs is what protects proverbs against the totalitarianism or absolutism which would otherwise attend upon the characteristic wish to speak very decisively – that is, universally. Proverbs are drawn to include not just the word ‘many’ but the word ‘all’; not just ‘better’ but ‘best’, and ‘longest’; and ‘every’, ‘never’, ‘no’ and ‘nothing’. Many a proverb gets its energy from its apparent determination to brook no exception, and yet the world of proverbs is one that is happy to accommodate the proverb that says: ‘There is an exception to every rule.’

The editor of this dictionary, J.A. Simpson, does well to introduce the caveat by which he speaks of ‘seemingly contradictory proverbs’. For ‘Many hands make light work’ is not countered by any proverb which says ‘Many hands do not make light work,’ but by ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth,’ which precludes any elaborated puzzlement and successfully urges you to decide whether this is a ‘Too many cooks’ or a ‘Many hands’ situation. It is very rare for there to be a straight negative such as makes the editor append to ‘The end justifies the means’ a note: ‘The negative of this is often asserted.’ More usual is for one proverb to sound like the opposite of another but for the two to be wrestlers – as with ‘The good is the enemy of the best’ and ‘The best is the enemy of the good.’ Or, more compact still, there is the double sense of ‘Once a ____, always a ____’ (knave, bishop, whore, thief, lady, patsy, priest ...). Sometimes this means that no X can ever change, for better or for worse; sometimes that when an X does change, nobody believes it. Both are good things to believe, and the proverb’s unduplicitous doubleness ministers to social vigilance, not to solitary complacency.

In The Figure of Echo, John Hollander has recently unfolded a contrariety in Chapter 26 of the Book of Proverbs:

Answer not a tool according to his folly, lest
thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be
wise in his own conceit.

Each of these ‘parallel’ verses gets its sharpness of point by contrast with the other. Perhaps most proverbs, if they have any force at all, are implicit exceptions taken to, or revisionary denials of, previous ones. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and ‘Out of sight is out of mind’ are comically juxtaposed as if to show thereby the moral emptiness of proverbial formulation – they cannot both be true, and therefore neither must be able to be. But if either one is read with the contrasting one as an implicit epigraph (viz., ‘You might have heard that “Absence ... etc”, but, in fact, out of sight is out of mind’), the rhetorical force of antithetical, systematic nay-but-saying is added. I think that most proverb literature works in this way, and that there is an implicit moral commonplace being denied even in the official wisdom which Blake’s proverbs – or Oscar Wilde’s, or Shaw’s, or Samuel Butler’s – so explicitly revise.

This is wise, but can itself do with some revisionary denial. For, in resisting the idea that these contraries show ‘the moral emptiness of proverbial formulation’, Hollander does make it sound as if the reason why the proverbs are not morally empty is that they are rhetorically full (‘the rhetorical force ...’), whereas it is indeed a moral and not just a rhetorical force which attaches to the myriad-mindedness of proverbs. ‘They cannot both be true’? But on occasion one is.

The actual entries in this dictionary are historically stringent; the brief introduction, reasonably enough, is tendentious. The historical tendencies which it sketches are not altogether to be believed. The editor speaks as if opposing the idea ‘that the proverb is going out of fashion, or that it has degenerated into the cliché,’ but goes on to accede to it by saying, of the popularity of the proverb as a ‘homely commentary on life’, that ‘this shift is reflected in the quotations which accompany the entries in the dictionary: recent quotations are often taken from the works of minor writers, or from newspapers and magazines, while earlier quotations are more frequently from the works of major writers.’ But this is more likely to be a reflection of the fact that, on the look-out for proverbs, an editorial workman can more blithely skim the minor writers and the newspapers and magazines. You can’t put your mind so functionally to Beckett as you can to Sharpe. Beckett is alive with proverbs: if many of them are newly-turned (‘blow blow, thou ill wind’), well, this dictionary hasn’t elsewhere set its face against such turns. There might have been room for Housman’s ‘The pen is mightier than the wrist,’ given that Saki is allowed to say that ‘The English have a proverb, “Conscience makes cowboys of us all,” ’ and that the Sphere is allowed to bend another ‘coward’ proverb upon Noel Coward. Aldous Huxley (‘When Greek meets Greek ...’) here speaks of ‘the tug of bores’; and G.K. Chesterton, more searchingly, insists that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. An ‘old Cockney Russian proverb’ (1980) says that ‘The family that spies together, sties together.’ (Why not ‘prays’ into ‘pries’?) Even the ad-men are allowed their turns: ‘Little things please little minds’ is wrested for a Galt Toy Catalogue; and ‘Promises, like piecrust, are made to be broken’ goes on: ‘Not at Sainsbury’s. Every single pie they sell lives up to the promise of its famous name’ (1981). So room should have been found for such turns in some real recent writers. In Beckett; in Dylan; in the poets who keep a sharp eye for the ephemeral: Auden and Larkin. And Randall Jarrell: ‘You can’t break eggs without making an omelette. That’s what they tell the eggs.’

‘The old adage might well be applied in many cases. Every man for himself’ (D. Yancey, 1795). ‘The captain ... ordered the sailor to leave the boat. “Every man for himself, and God for us all!” was the cool answer of the refractory seaman’ (Captain Marryat, 1830). To which might be added: ‘The ship is lost: go back to san bernardino – stop trying to organise the crew – it’s every man for himself – are you a man or a self?’ (B. Dylan, 1971).

Still, the LRB must be pleased to appear under ‘One Englishman can beat three Frenchmen.’ No, not post-structuralism, but this: ‘Spain’s conquest of Mexico “gave Europeans a new and potent myth”, the conviction of one European as equal to twenty others’ (16 July-5 Aug. 1981). No author given. A Deas at the dais? Or a Dalyell come to judgment?

The dictionary’s editor sounds wistful when speaking of ‘the period up to the 17th century, the heyday of the proverb as a vehicle for expressing unquestioned moral truth’. Since there has never been such a thing as unquestioned moral truth, it is good to find that in fact the proverb is here being benignly maligned, and that from the earliest possible times a proverb was duly questioned as to its truth. ‘A cherry year, a merry year; a plum year, a dumb year’ was thought to be a dumb proverb at its earliest citation: ‘puerile and senseless’ (1678). There is no handling of proverbs which you might come across in recent literature which cannot be found as much in earlier centuries. There is the sceptical curtailing of a proverb: ‘All’s fair in ...’ (J.I.M. Stewart, 1972), ‘Caesar’s wife and that sort of thing’ (Dorothy Sayers, 1930), ‘Faint heart – he mused over the proverb’ (Gissing, 1899), ‘But obedience – We all know the adage’ (Grant, 1847), ‘What is got over his back is spent – you wot how’ (Scott, 1821), ‘Ay, sir, but “While the grass grows” – the proverb is something musty’ (Hamlet, 1600-1).

What is constant is that proverbs are explicitly dispraised, and as often praised. The fact that they are so often praised for their truth, from earliest times, makes it manifest that their truthfulness is never believed to go without saying or to go unquestioned: ‘that’s an old saying and a true one’ (New Yorker, 1976), ‘As the proverb most truly says ...’ (Liddon, 1892), ‘It is an old maxim and a very sound one ...’ (Lincoln, 1837), ‘There is a homely proverb, which speaks a shrewd truth ...’ (Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792), ‘The proverb is true ...’ (Adams, 1616), ‘Now have I found the proverb true to prove ...’ (Edwardes, 1576).

According to Cobbett, ‘ “Please your eye and plague your heart” is an adage that want of beauty invented, I dare say, more than a thousand years ago.’ During those thousand years, or two hundred, this proverb – like every other proverb – was on every occasion up for verification. ‘I find verified that proverb, that the second thoughts are ever the best,’ wrote Pettie in 1581. Keats, in the same right spirit of true respect for proverbs, wrote in 1818: ‘The more we know the more inadequacy we discover in the world to satisfy us – this is an old observation; but I have made up my Mind never to take any thing for granted – but even to examine the truth of the commonest proverbs.’ In the next year, he wrote: ‘Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.’

So we should question the belief that proverbs were once ‘a vehicle for expressing moral truth’, as well as the historical sketch which this belief ushers in:

By the 18th century, however, the popularity of the proverb had declined in the work of educated writers, who began to ridicule it as a vehicle for trite, conventional wisdom. In Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe (1748), the hero, Robert Lovelace, is congratulated on his approaching marriage and advised to mend his foolish ways. His uncle writes: ‘It is a long lane that has no turning. – Do not despise me for my proverbs.’ Swift, in the introduction to his Polite Conversation (1738), remarks: ‘The Reader must learn by all means to distinguish between Proverbs, and those polite Speeches which beautify Conversation: ... As to the former, I utterly reject them out of all ingenious Discourse.’ It is easy to see how proverbs came into disrepute.

But Lovelace is as much the villain as ‘the hero’ of Clarissa; and his uncle, Lord M., though he overdoes his fondness for proverbs, has the truth on his side when he urges, ‘Do not despise me for my proverbs,’ as when he insists that Lovelace would be the better for heeding them. Similarly, it is not Swift who remarks of proverbs, ‘I utterly reject them out of all ingenious Discourse,’ but rather his simperingly snobbish creature. The paragraph has a very different effect from that suggested:

The Readers must learn by all means to distinguish between Proverbs and those polite Speeches which beautify Conversation: For, as to the former, I utterly reject them out of all ingenious Discourse. I acknowledge indeed, that there may possibly be found in this Treatise a few Sayings, among so great a Number of smart Turns of Wit and Humour, as I have produced, which have a proverbial Air: However, I hope, it will be considered, that even these were not originally Proverbs, but the genuine Production of superior Wits, to embellish and support Conversation; from whence, with great Impropriety, as well as Plagiarism (if you will forgive a hard Word) they have most injuriously been transferred into proverbial Maxims; and therefore in Justice ought to be resumed out of vulgar Hands, to adorn the Drawing-Rooms of Princes, both Male and Female, the Levees of great Ministers, as well as the Toilet and Tea-table of the Ladies.

By just so much as ‘polite Speeches which beautify Conversation’ are here paraded for our contempt, by just so much are proverbs vindicated. The instances given by the dictionary’s editor make against his argument. Genuinely ‘educated writers’ like Swift and Richardson scorn those who think that their education entitles them simply to scorn proverbs. A proverb’s reputation is kept up when the disreputable hold it in disrepute.