Dot Wordsworth

What’s good for the goose is bad for the proverb

A sauce check on a traditional saying

What’s good for the goose is bad for the proverb
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‘Goosey, goosey gander,’ my husband shouted at the television, like someone from Gogglebox. It’s not so much that he thinks the television real as that he thinks himself an unreal part of the television.

The cause of his outburst was something that had caught my attention, too. Someone had said: ‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’ We both thought this a mere garbling of the proverb: ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’ It is not the benefit of either the goose or the gander that is under consideration but the delectation of their flesh. Certainly, the oldest books of proverbs mention sauce.

Chief among these is John Ray’s collection from 1670. What a labour it must have been to compile. But Ray was fearless, taking a mere three weeks to categorise all the animals and plants of the world, as a contribution to John Wilkins’s universal language. Wilkins’s idea was to represent everything by symbols — not just porcupines and pineapples, but qualities and relations too. Not such a bad idea, though in practice it proved less useful than everyone learning Latin.

Anyway, it seems that since Ray’s times the new and (to my ears) debased version has crept in. As proof, is Norman Wisdom’s film from 1969 What’s Good for the Goose. There’s also a half-hearted suggestion of goosing in the sexual sense, for this dire film has Norman rubbing up against the sexy Sixties.

Yet garbling of proverbs is always at work. One that trips up chatterers is the shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted. The bolt attracts them too soon, so that they begin ‘Bolt the stable door…’ then realise another bolt is looming in a different sense. This proverb has survived even longer than the goose and gander, being incorporated by John Gower in his endless poem Confessio Amantis. Writing of a character called Negligence (a clue in the name) he says: ‘Whan the grete Stiede / Is stole, thanne he taketh hiede, / And maketh the stable dore fast.’ Even when it is garbled, I still prefer this proverb to the dull cliché ‘too little, too late’.