Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

The folk wisdom that’s just wrong


I was only a boy when I first began protesting against the idiocy of so much of the folk wisdom handed down to us. Proverbs, adages and aphorisms (‘a pithy observation that contains a general truth,’ says my dictionary) are recited to children by grown-ups, often in a singsong, holier-than-thou voice; and I couldn’t help noticing that many were quite evidently untrue, contained thoroughly bad advice, and some nuggets of supposedly sage proverbial wisdom are flatly contradicted by other nuggets of sage proverbial wisdom. I started taking a note whenever my attention was caught by yet another glaringly obvious example of a proverb, sanctimonious or trite, that was just plain wrong.

If we all seized the moment every time some hare-brained move occurred to us, we’d be in deep trouble

Last week I heard a politician, taken to task for the pettifogging nature of some initiative or other they were trying to trumpet (probably involving potholes), retort: ‘Yes, but every little helps.’ It doesn’t, or not much. If it’s only little then its value is only little. Lao Tzu was not wrong to say that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ but omitted to mention that there remain, after that first step, at least 1,999,999 steps further to take, and you’d be well advised to think about that before putting your best foot forward.

Adding Lao Tzu and ‘every little helps’ to my list, I noticed, already on it, ‘pennies add up to pounds’. Same mistake. True, 100 pennies do add up to a pound, but then what have you got? A pound. Continue saving until you’ve got 300 pennies and you might be able to afford a cup of coffee. The piggy-bank mentality should not be encouraged in children: they need the instinct to make money work for them.

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