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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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.”