Published October 1, 2012
“Modern proverbs” is surely a contradiction in terms — unless “modern” is being used in its unmodern sense of “commonplace,” as in Shakespeare’s “wise saws and modern instances.” The word “proverb” inevitably connotes the idea of age and seasoning — wisdom that has been tried by time. Indeed, a proverb is usually so old that its original author is unknown.
What has such a weathered artifact to do with the linguistic ephemera of popular culture collected by Charles C. Doyle and company from 20th-century authors under the title of The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs? The best you can say is that some of them (but by no means all) are aspirational proverbs — proverbs only if they stick around for a few hundred years, as very few of them seem likely to do. For although this florilegium is not quite devoid of wit, wisdom, or concision, the selection is short enough of these qualities that it has had to rely on a large number of decidedly second- and even third-rate examples to make up the volume.
Even the better ones seem to be more clichés or catchphrases, or clichéic catchphrases, than proverbs in any recognizable sense of the term. Many are banalities or mere vulgarisms: “Take (Grab) the bull (life, the world) by the balls” inspires the rejoinder, “You first.” The editors claim that “Life comes at you fast,” identified only as the Nationwide Insurance slogan since 2004, has “probably entered oral tradition as a proverb,” though they offer no example of such use. I would be surprised if they could find one. And then there’s “Gas, grass, or ass: Nobody rides for free.” There’s one that’s thankfully unlikely to survive the 21st century.
And if they do last, how shaming it will be to our age — by then long dead and gone, of course — to have contributed nothing better than the likes of “Sh– (Stuff) happens” to the language’s treasure hoard. Still, I suppose that it is useful to know that such banality (in its “stuff” form, naturally) dates back as far as the 1930s, with the Vic and Sade radio show. If most of the misnamed proverbs herein are pretty feeble stuff qua proverbs, they do present us with portraits of our contemporary culture and the American English vernacular.
The pleasure of tracing familiar sayings back to their sources is unaffected by their proverbial character, or the lack of it. There are some surprising attributions. “When all else fails, pray” seems to have been first said by Henry Miller, of all people. The therapeutic nostrum “Fake it till you make it” comes, apparently, from the Anniston (Ala.) Star in 1972. It is good if disappointing to learn that “A billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money” can be traced to a filler item in a 1938 New York Times issue, which makes it most unlikely that the late, great Sen. Everett Dirksen said it first.
I didn’t know that “Be all you can be” was originally followed by “Read,” and was a slogan for National Library Week in 1968. And who would have thought that “Let it all hang out” was from Jim Brosnan’s Pennant Race of 1962? It appears that what was originally hanging out was a pitcher’s “stuff,” in the baseball sense.
Some we thought we knew have unfamiliar origins: Charles S. Harris, we are told, claims to have coined the expression “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle” in the Swarthmore (Pa.) Phoenix in 1958. The more familiar feminist version, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” is associated with Gloria Steinem; but she disclaims credit for it, attributing it instead to the Australian writer Irina Dunn and dating it to 1970. Apparently, this date could not be verified, though, as the earliest example found by the editors dates from 1976 in the Corpus Christi Times. The Dictionary‘s editors go on to suggest that the expression, clearly more a slogan than a proverb, “originated as an anti-proverb patterned after ‘A woman without a man is like a handle without a pan,’ ” which antedates the 20th century.
This idea of “anti-proverbs” is a bit dubious. “Love thy neighbor, but don’t get caught” belongs back on the wall of the men’s room where the Washington Post in 1967 claimed to have found it, not be-garlanded with the dignity of an “anti-proverb.” Nor are those which might deserve this status always identified as such. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” is listed as a proverb, but it would be better described as an anti-proverb, since it memorializes what was regarded as a false acquittal and is unlikely ever to be used unironically again. “Can’t we all just get along?” is identified as a misquotation of “Can we all get along?” by the late Rodney King, but we aren’t told that its use as a catchphrase is now also ironic and meant to mock a naïve belief in easy solutions to social conflicts.
The editors aren’t really telling us anything we don’t know when they say that “‘When you’ve got it, flaunt it’ . . . may have entered oral tradition as a proverb from the motion picture The Producers . . . or the character in the movie may have been uttering a proverb.” I guess we’ll never know. In the same way, ” ‘When you’re hot, you’re hot (and when you’re not, you’re not)’ . . . may have entered oral tradition as a proverb from a song by Jerry Reed” — or maybe Jerry Reed heard it from someone else first. Too bad nobody thought to ask him before he died four years ago. But it seems unlikely that “When you fall off a horse, get right back on another” could date only from 1962 — not least because the supposedly original quotation (in Negro Digest regarding boxer Emile Griffiths and his subsequent career after killing Benny Paret in the ring) makes clear that it is quoting someone else.
On the other hand, it is worth something to know that the journalistic maxim “One picture is worth a thousand words” was coined by the grandfather of a recent public editor of the New York Times, also called Arthur Brisbane, a legendary editor of New York newspapers for Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. I’m even more pleased to learn that “It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and let the world know it” is not, as I thought, by Mark Twain, nor yet by Abraham Lincoln or Samuel Johnson, but by Maurice Switzer — someone so obscure he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry — in his humorous miscellany of 1907, mostly based on children’s rhymes, titled Mrs. Goose, Her Book.
By the way, Switzer’s original maxim — and all the subsequently cited variations of it — include what I would have thought the rather essential first clause (“It is better to remain silent. . .”), while the editors’ much less pithy but paradigmatic version of the “proverb” does not. It’s not the only instance of the editors’ poor collective ear for the native woodnotes wild of the popular culture, which may also have something to do with their politics. Here you will find: “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged” and “A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested,” the former dating from 1973. But there is no mention of the now surely better-known witticism of Irving Kristol, that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.
Even more oddly, they make no mention of Gary Hart or Walter Mondale in connection with “Where’s the beef?” which is identified as having “entered oral tradition as a proverb from an advertising slogan for Wendy’s hamburgers.” Well, yes — but who remembers it in connection with hamburgers and not as one of the rare instances when a single satirical question could be said to have ended a political candidacy?
“Everybody lies about sex” is dated to Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long (1973), but there is no mention of Bill Clinton, whose lies about sex are likely to be the occasion of most people’s recognition of the expression, if they do recognize it. “Strong and wrong beats weak and right,” though it dates from 1912, is said “in recent times” to have been “often attributed to Bill Clinton.” But the editors then go on to say it refers “specifically to the election of President George W. Bush in 2002.” Of course, the second President Bush was elected in 2000, and his predecessor was referring not to him but to Republican gains in the midterm elections two years later, thought to have been influenced by the administration’s strong (and supposedly “wrong”) response to 9/11.
The best things in the volume, as in most of this kind, are nuggets turned up at random. “Everyone can’t be first” apparently comes from Oliver St. John Gogarty’s Start from Somewhere Else (1955), in which he tells the following story of Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York (1881-1946): Invited to speak at a lunch in Cuba, Walker overslept and, arriving late, apologized by saying: “After all, everyone can’t be first: George Washington married a widow.” (The editors suggest that “the anecdote may be apocryphal.”)
Under “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” we learn that the expression dates to a 1960 article in Signal, a publication of the Armed Forces Communications Association, by one L. C. Sheetz, titled “Is Communications Reliability Possible?” There, as “a facetious footnote” to Murphy’s Law (not included in the Dictionary), which he attributed to “M/Sgt Murphy, a crew chief of many years experience,” Sheetz added the following:
Although originally advanced in connection with aircraft maintenance, subsequent investigations by M/Sgts Shultz, Cohen and Dabnovich have proven its applicability to C-E [communications electronics]. The latter, by the way, is the author of the Dabnovich axiom, “If it works, don’t fix it.”
The editors helpfully comment that “presumably M/Sgt Dabnovich is fictional.” They offer no opinion as to the existence of M/Sgt Murphy.
James Bowman, the author of Honor, A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.