by Tammy Surline
Of all the machinations in the English language, none are more fascinating than old sayings and cliches. It’s hard to believe when listening to some groups talk, but there are actually more clever responses in conversational banter than “whatever”, “duh”, and the newly androgynous “dude”.
In fact, a study of cliches is quite daunting. There are as many pearls of wisdom as there are grains of sand. So I thought maybe I’d just start with those from my childhood that have stuck with me over the years. Back then I assumed these sometimes goofy but always entertaining witticisms came from someone in our family, or at the very least distant relatives in the sepia-toned photographs in dusty albums that none of us could identify.
Grandparents are a great source of old expressions and mine were no exception. “Pretty is as pretty does,” my grandma used to say. Also one of my personal favorites, “if you dance, you have to pay the fiddler,” which is so much more memorable than just saying, “hey, you’ll be sorry!” My grandpa always told a more cautionary tale with things like “live in hopes, die in despair.” Or if I was contemplating something daring, such as jumping off a ladder or roller skating down a big hill, he’d say “go ahead, I’ll catch you on the second bounce.”
While my dad has never been short on saying anything, he does come up with quite a few good phrases now and then. Much to my surprise, some of those phrases actually come from somewhere other than his own mind. “A busy blue jacket is a happy blue jacket.” Apparently, this originated with the U.S. Navy and that’s where he picked it up. Obviously something said to get sailors to work harder, similar to another expression a former supervisor of mine used to say, “idle hands are Lucifer’s workshop.” That same supervisor used to motivate us with “plan your work and work your plan.” It didn’t really motivate us much, but I sure motivated him when I quoted it back to him during a project.
Over the years, I’ve found that a well-timed old quote can end (or start) any argument better than facts or logic. “The opposite of bravery is not cowardice, but conformity.” This one has been on the tip of my tongue during many encounters with figures of authority who were just trying to get me to “shape up or ship out”. Hey, that’s a good one, too!
Family friends also provide a wealth of humorous chestnuts, although some a bit too colorful to print here. My favorites are those that people don’t get quite right. One of our dear friends used to entertain me with something like, “that man couldn’t pour water out of a boot with handles.” (I’ve cleaned this up a bit.) The actual saying is “that man couldn’t pour water out of a boot if the directions were printed on the heel.” (Think about it, it will become clear. And again, I’ve sanitized it for prime time.)
Some quips come from classic literature and The Bible. Others from famous people and scholars. Even movies and television provide us with some very wise and timely verbiage that will last for years to come, like “go ahead, make my day,” or die out fairly quickly, like “talk to the hand”.
Song lyrics are also a good source. My mom is famous for misquoting song lyrics, but that’s a whole other blog. It was the title of a song that got my husband and I into an argument that goes on to this day about a Judas Priest song entitled “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” My family used that quote numerous times, but I always thought it was “another think coming”. After much deliberation and a thorough internet search, we found that either one is correct although the original is “thing”. I’m sticking with “think” since it’s more amusing.
Famous people usually get credit for very old ditties. Socrates said “eat to live, not live to eat”. I don’t really care for this one. Ben Franklin had a few annoying tidbits like “a penny saved is a penny earned.” He could be a bit of a know-it-all, mainly because he knew something about it all. “An empty bag cannot stand upright” came to me in a fortune cookie, but amazingly enough, Mr. Franklin coined that one and not Confucius (or the cook down at Wonderful House).
I checked out a book from the library entitled The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches. Ironically, many clichés I mentioned here are not in this book, but a whole host of others are. So before you roll your eyes and chant “not that old nugget again” when your Uncle Nabob delivers one of his tired old locutions, dig around a little and find out its true origin. It just may surprise you.
Silence is golden. – obscure origin, but possibly from the poet Thomas Carlyle. (This one comes to me when Justin Beiber or Taylor Swift come on the radio.)
Pride goeth before a fall. – The Holy Bible
It takes all kinds to make a world – similar version of a quote from The Book of Common Prayer.
The lesser of two evils, is still evil – unknown origin, but I like it, especially during election season!
Vita privata, vita beata – Italian proverb meaning keep your private life private and be happier for it (and it sounds so cool in Italian!)