Francis Bacon said that “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.” It is therefore imperative to rid our language of the following proverbs and sayings which demonstrate neither genius, wit nor the spirit of our great nation:
You can’t have your cake and eat it
But you can! You can have your cake and eat it. You can’t eat your cake and then have the cake that you have just eaten. But if you do have a cake in your possession, the only sensible thing you can do with it is to eat it. Otherwise it will go stale.
This meaningless expression is most often used in situations where people really mean, You don’t deserve this as in “If a woman has a family, she cannot expect to have a career as well. You can’t have your cake and eat it.” or “If you want a job here, you’ll have to learn to stand up and pee with the boys. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
Of course there are some choices in life which are mutually exclusive but since having cake and eating cake are not, we really need to ditch this one. While I’m on the subject of food…
You are what you eat.
No you’re not, neither literally nor metaphorically. If you eat terribly unhealthily, poor health is likely to eventually result and with some medical conditions, what you eat can have a dramatic effect on your prognosis. However, diet is just one small part of what determines a person’s health and well-being. Most people who are sick didn’t eat themselves into that position, nor may they eat themselves out of it.
It is so miserable that we should be made to feel guilty about food. Food should be a source of tremendous pleasure in life but is beginning to replace sex in the minefield of personal morality. This is not about how the food was produced, an area which might actually raise some moral questions. Instead we are made to feel guilty about the nutritional content of what we are eating, and most problematically, properties of food which are mere speculation; wheat is poisonous, carrots make you lethargic, eggs cause wrinkles etc.
I don’t advocate total abandon or gluttony, but in the absence of some established condition (as opposed to self-diagnosed cucumber-intolerance), food should be about sustenance and pleasure. We have a greater opportunity for both than most other people on the planet or in our own history.
A leopard can’t change its spots
Of course, a leopard really can’t change its spots. However, human beings can and do change, frequently for the better. There are valid reasons for not giving a person another chance to let you down, but these are usually quite subtle and complex; to assume that one mistake or one troubled period in a person’s life represents how they will continue to behave for the rest of their lives is inexpedient as well as deeply uncharitable. All criminal convictions would warrant life sentences.
A more useful proverb would illustrate the need to see evidence of a change. Some of us are very easily drawn back into relationships with people who hurt us, especially those with whom we share a few genes, when the offending persons have not even expressed the intention to change. On the subject of which…
Blood is thicker than water
Once again, this is literally true. However, the things which bind us to our families have very little to do with blood. Thousands of people may have contributed to the DNA of the individual sperm and egg which set you going, so why do we expect to resemble and get on with the group of contributors who happen to be alive at the same time as us?
Of course your parents do have a conditioning influence on you and your bond with them is likely to be much as Philip Larkin put it. However, this has far less to do with blood as the fact that it was these individuals or individual who dominated your most formative years and on whose ongoing investment (love? approval?) your survival was dependant.
Despite the fact that siblings will share many experiences with you growing up, psychometric tests show that non-identical twins have as little in common with one another as any two non-relatives from a similar cultural and socio-economic background. Some siblings bond and remain good friends, but it is not at all surprising when some siblings are like strangers to one another.