Saturday, February 25, 2006

Proverbs I wish to exterminate

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.


imfunnytoo said...

Thank you so much for pointing out the flaws in these things...particularly the disturbing trend of moralizing about food.

One of my favorite comedians came out and proposed the shocking idea that our relatives, particularly parents, don't automatically deserve respect because they are parents...that they should actually have to earn it.

In the spirit of contrariness...:) I have one proverb that I believe should be held onto...I believe that:

"You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar."

boiled down to it's basics it simply means: "Look, don't be a nasty jerk, at work, at home or in relationships. You'll achieve more of what you want that way."

Anonymous said...

This Diary of a Goldfish reader would like a Goldfishian analysis of 'many a mickle makes a muckle', please.

The Goldfish said...

Imfunnytoo, I like your flies with the honey too. There are a few great proverbs like that. :-)

Vaughan, hmm, many a mickle makes a muckle...

Well this is, as you probably know, a popular 18th century corruption of "Many a little makes a mickle" - mickle meaning many. How it got to many a muckle making a mickle I don't know, but it is a Scots expression and they can't pronounce anything properly.

It means that for example, if you wrote a little thing, say a few hundred words and did it a good few times a week for, say, five years, than that little thing would amount to a tremendous volume of work and a great gift to anyone who knows where it is.

But merely modify your metatags and make me muddle manually through multiple marvellous if not magniloquent memoirs for the masterpiece I had in mind, then that makes for one majorly massive, nay mammoth mega-muckle if ever I met one.

Although usually this proverb is used in the context of money as in Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.

BloggingMone said...

It is very interesting to compare proverbs of different countries. Sometimes they are very similar, but sometimes there are big differences. But the topics they relate to, seem to be the same in lots of countries.
In Germany we also have "Blood is thicker than water" and "You are what you eat". they are both rubbish, I think.
"Many a mickle makes a muckle" in German is "Very small animals will also produce a big heap of dung"
Another German proverb says that "the farmer does not eat what he does not know" A saying that can either be taken literally for those people who are very peckish with their food, but also means that someone is reluctant to learn new things. In that case it is a bit unfair to farmers, I think....
Another proverb I can see some truth in, at least when it comes to all kind of social abilities is the German saying: "What little Hans does not learn, big Hans won't know!"
And last, but not least: "a hen-pecked husband" in Germany is a "Slippers heroe" .

Anonymous said...

I am a great believer in the American proverb "What goes around comes around".

The Goldfish said...

I like "Very small animals will also produce a big heap of dung" - how is that said in German?

Not so keen on "What goes around comes around." but I guess too often I've heard that as some sort of threat as opposed to the positive message it ought to carry.

Anonymous said...

I don't take it as a threat, more as a simple statement of fact, applying to good and ill both.

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