The Magazine

Wisdom of the Age

Words to live by—at the moment.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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‘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.

Yogi (‘You can observe a lot by watching’) Berra whispers to pitcher Allie Reyno

Yogi (‘You can observe a lot by watching’) Berra whispers to pitcher Allie Reynolds, 1951.

bettmann / corbis / ap images

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.