Long ago (so I have forgotten the precise details) I read one of those books by a British soldier who escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp in the second world war. He had managed to pinch a German uniform and was making his way across the Fatherland disguised as an Oberleutnant or something. Suddenly he was confronted by a company of the victorious, advancing British troops. How could he instantly convey to them that he was English, and so avoid being shot? He had a brainwave. He shouted out the filthiest English swear-words he could think of. The soldiers lowered their rifles: few Germans would know those words, and the accent was right.
Supposing our escaper had had a tender Christian conscience, and had not wanted to besmirch his lips with scatology. He could have shouted out some English proverbs — for proverbs are the shibboleths of a nation, distillations of its peculiar character and wisdom. The escaper would have cut a curious figure bellowing, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’ or ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’, but I think those troops would have been convinced and held their fire.
David Crystal has compiled a fascinating book. The Greeks had a word for what he is; or rather, the 18th century adapted the Greek paroimia, meaning proverb or byword, into paroemiographer, one who writes or collects proverbs. He has corralled not only nearly all the English proverbs one has ever heard, but examples from Albania, Ghana, Japan, Côte d’Ivoire and just about everywhere else you can think of.
You don’t need to be xenophobic or a racist to find some of the foreign proverbs utterly bizarre and to wonder what possible application they could have. ‘Add legs to the snake after you have finished drawing it’ (China). ‘Slowly but surely the excrement of foreign poets will come to your village’ (Mali). ‘Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot’ (Ireland). And ‘They must have clean fingers who would blow another’s nose’ (Denmark).
These oddities, however, are far exceeded by sayings that are sophisticated, witty or wise. ‘Do not blame God for having created the tiger, but thank Him for not having given it wings’ (Ethiopia). ‘Those who have free seats at a play hiss first’ (China). ‘If power can be bought, then sell your mother to get it; you can always buy her back later’ (Ghana). ‘A fire in the heart makes smoke in the head’ (Germany). ‘If familiarity were useful, water wouldn’t cook fish’ (Cameroon). ‘Peace makes money and money makes war’ (France). And ‘The echo knows all languages’ (Finland). That last one is poetic; so is the suggestion from China that the faculty of love need never atrophy: ‘If I keep a green bough in my heart, a singing-bird will come.’
Call me a chauvinist, but one of the convictions this book has given me is that British is best. More specifically, English. Our proverbs are wonderfully concentrated, pithy and telling. ‘Handsome is as handsome does’; ‘One swallow does not make a summer’; ‘Still waters run deep’; ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’; ‘Faint heart never won fair lady.’ I notice how many English proverbs derive their strength from being entirely of single-syllable words. ‘All is fair in love and war’; ‘Make hay while the sun shines’; ‘What goes up must come down’; ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ — I could cite many more, but enough is as good as a feast.
Asking several people in this newish century what they thought of proverbs, David Crystal ‘encountered a surprising number of negative reactions’. One view was that proverbs are clichés, used by people who don’t bother to think for themselves. Others see them as old-fashioned, out of date. They certainly go back a long way, and Crystal is illuminating on their history. Shakespeare would have learnt proverbs at school, and many are spattered through his plays. Books of proverbs were used in schools, such as Richard Taverner’s Proverbes or Adagies — a collection of proverbs from Erasmus — and Nicholas Udall’s Floures of Terence (the Latin poet whose name Housman used as a pseudonym for his friend Moses Jackson in the line, ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff’).
When Lady Macbeth chides her husband for his tardiness she says:
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’,
Which adage? Crystal tells us: ‘The cat would eat fish, and would not wet her feet.’ The game in which two people trump each other’s puns has been called ‘punning ping-pong’. As Crystal points out, there is proverbial ping-pong, too. We find it in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which characters engage in a spontaneous proverb contest:
Orleans: Ill will never said well.
That battle of wits continues; and another is found in a poem by Shakespeare's contemporary, Michael Drayton:
As Love and I late harbour’d in one inn,
As these lines show, some proverbs become extinct while others survive in a sort of Darwinian trait of linguistics. And, as Crystal shows, new proverbs spring up, such as ‘Garbage in, garbage out’. (‘The phrase originated in [the] IT world: if invalid data is entered into a system, the output will also be invalid.’)
As a child I always enjoyed the party game Adverbs: one person goes out of the room, the others decide on an adverb; when the excluded one returns, he or she has to guess the adverb by asking questions which all the others answer in that manner — ‘malevolently’, ‘mysteriously’, ‘gauchely’, ‘noncommittally’ and so on. As an alternative to Adverbs, I have invented a new Christmas party game called Proverbs, for those who invest in a copy of Crystal’s book. It is a slightly more cerebral variation on proverbial ping-pong. You open the book at random, and stab a proverb with your forefinger, and have to answer back — make a riposte to the adage, new teeth for an old saw. Here are some examples to show how the game works: I have put my retorts in italics.
‘When luck offers a finger one must take the whole hand’ (Sweden). That’s cannibal etiquette for you. ‘A frog beneath a coconut shell believes there is no other world.’ (Malaysia). How do you know? ‘A starving crocodile is never pleasant’ (Madagascar). Not too keen on a replete one. ‘One does not rub buttocks with a porcupine’ (Ghana). Unless one is a silly fakir. ‘Poets and pigs are appreciated only after their death’ (Italy). Lord Emsworth begs to differ. ‘Those who haven’t seen a church bow before a fireplace’ (Poland). The mantel of Elijah?
‘Looking for fish, don’t climb a tree’ (China). Wrong plaice. ‘Wider will be the cow-dung for trampling on it’ (Wales). To what end? (From what end, we know.) ‘Never marry a woman who has bigger feet than you’ (Mozambique). No immediate plans in that direction. ‘It is in vain to look for yesterday’s fish in the house of the otter.’ Otter know better.
Or you could buy a different book — perhaps Nigel Rees’s A Man about a Dog, a grab-bag of euphemisms, just as entertaining as Crystal’s proverbs. Anybody who has listened to the radio quiz Quote … Unquote will know that Rees is Britain’s most popular lexicographer. He has written over 50 books, mostly devoted to quotations and aspects of the English language. He is the lineal successor to Eric Partridge and, like him, he makes etymology fun.
Quentin Crisp called euphemisms ‘unpleasant truths wearing cologne’. Rees’s is by no means the first collection of them, but it is the merriest. He is scholarly, but always on the look-out for the curious, the diverting and the naughty. Having always taken it for granted that ‘Brownie points’ were awarded by Brown Owls to fledgling Girl Guides, I found Rees’s entry about them an eye-opener:
Anticipated reward for calculated behaviour. Originating in American business or the military, and certainly recorded before 1963, this has nothing to do with Brownies, the junior branch of the Girl Guides, and the points they might or might not gain for doing their ‘good deed for the day’. Oh no! This has a scatological origin, not unconnected with brown-nosing, brown-tonguing, arse-licking and other unsavoury methods of sucking up to someone important.
The book is pretty comprehensive. However, I hope Rees will forgive me if I mention a few omissions. He gives many synonyms for lavatory (itself, as he points out, a euphemism) but is less generous with delicate expressons for chamber-pot. I suspect this is a generation thing: on those endless television programmes in which young couples look for houses, ‘en suite bathrooms’ are a mantra-like demand. With an ‘en suite’ one doesn’t need a chamber-pot. Rees has ‘gazunder’ (goes under the bed) and ‘bathroom utensil’ (or ‘bedroom utensil’), the object put to such robust use in a limerick:
There was a young man called Stencil
But Rees lacks ‘po’, from pot de chambre (in my primary school, the surname of Edgar Allan Poe was always good for a snigger. ‘Po-faced’ conjures a weird chimera — but it’s just short for ‘poker-faced’.) ‘Jerry’ is also missing: the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a derivation from ‘jeroboam’. In the last century it was a rite-of-passage prank for Oxford undergraduates to climb the Martyrs’ Memorial (‘Maggers Memoggers’ in posh slang) and hang a chamber-pot on the top pinnacle. In journalism this was always referred to as ‘an article’ (‘Varsity revellers hung an article on one of the dreaming spires’). Because of this press usage, the sort of article one writes for a newspaper had to be referred to as ‘a piece’.
As euphemisms for prison, Rees omits ‘pokey’, ‘jug’, ‘clink’ and the charming ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’. Other absentees: ‘on the never-never’ for hire purchase (itself a euphemism); ‘over the hill’ for old; ‘caught with one’s hand in the till’ for having stolen; ‘fruit’ for a male homosexual (Rees has most of the other gibes); and ‘Queer Street’ and ‘Carey Street’, relating to people in financial straits. (In Brideshead Revisted, Charles Ryder’s father murmurs the former address about a feckless relative.)
Rees has ‘unprepossessing’ but not ‘ill-favoured’; ‘down on one’s luck’ but not ‘down on one’s uppers’; ‘tight’ and ‘half seas over’ but not ‘squiffy’ or ‘blotto’, of which a nice variant is blotto voce for the slurred speech of a drunk. He includes ‘private parts’ and ‘spherical objects’, but not ‘goolies’. I recall that when David Holbrook’s book The Secret Places was published in 1964, somebody suggested it should be retitled The Private Parts.
The book is surprisingly weak on euphemisms for ‘fool’, ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’. These change over the years and have included ‘twerp’ (apparently named after T. W. Earp, a decadent Oxford undergraduate of 1911), ‘clot’ (as in ‘you clumsy clot!’), ‘twit’, ‘nit’ (enabling Prince Philip to commit one of his celebrated gaffes when he said to the woman supervisor of a knitting factory, ‘So you’re the big knit, then?’), ‘nana’ (short for ‘banana’?) and ‘charley’ (as in ‘you’re a proper charley’ —though the word has also been slang for a woman’s breast). In the early 1980s, ‘wally’ was the favoured euphemism for a fool. It never spread to America: I had a boss on the Los Angeles Times called Wally, who was satisfyingly teased when I gave him a book (printed in London) entitled How to Be a Wally, illustrating the antics of a buffoon.
There are a few grace-notes Rees could have added about the euphemisms he does print. The word ‘consumption’ for tuberculosis has a rider — galloping consumption: Rider Haggard. In giving ‘the curse’ as one of the many euphemisms for menstruation, Rees might have recalled the unfortunate lines of Tennyson — ‘ “The curse has come upon me!”/ Cried the Lady of Shalott.’ He records that there is ‘no agreed pc term for a hunchback’. I can’t help remembering that the very non-pc Joan Rivers called Dolly Parton a ‘hunchfront’.
Political correctness supplies some of the most recently coined euphemisms in the book. Apparently, ‘herstory’ was seriously used by feminists at one time; but surely most of these inventions were meant as jokes — ‘femhole’ for ‘manhole’; ‘we’ll bake some gingerbread persons’; ‘snow creature’ for snowman); and ‘it’s raining non-human animal companions’. On the LA Times I was once ordered to change ‘fisherman’ to ‘angler’. One rather sweet American euphemism is missing: ‘pacifier’ for a baby’s dummy. It is America’s tragedy that it has as its president a dummy rather than a pacifier.