Vo­cab

Friday - - Mind Games -

Word ex­pert Don Haupt­man once wrote of a ‘lin­guis­tic peeve’ – the wide­spread mis­use of the ad­jec­tive ‘prover­bial’, of­fer­ing this ex­am­ple from a mag­a­zine pro­file of a gov­ern­ment whistle­blower: “When she grabs hold of some­thing, she is like the prover­bial dog with a bone in its teeth.” Of course, this ex­pres­sion is not a proverb; it’s a metaphor or sim­ile (or, less char­i­ta­bly, a cliché).

Per­mis­sive dic­tionar­ies have shame­fully ca­pit­u­lated, sanc­tion­ing this popular sole­cism. But if you adopt a pre­scrip­tive at­ti­tude, a proverb com­mu­ni­cates a truth, prin­ci­ple or moral les­son in a pointed and pithy style: “Out of sight, out of mind”; “The ap­ple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, etc. It con­tains a nugget of wis­dom, ex­pressed in­ci­sively and mem­o­rably. It is also se­ri­ous – it means business.

While th­ese and many other tra­di­tional proverbs re­main rel­e­vant and in­grained in our cul­ture, new ones are con­stantly be­ing cre­ated (“garbage in, garbage out”; dif­fer­ent strokes for dif­fer­ent folks”).

In con­trast an epi­gram is equally pro­found, suc­cinct and catchy, but pos­sesses the ad­di­tional virtues of wit and bite. Its in­gre­di­ents may in­clude satire, cyn­i­cism, irony or para­dox: “The only way to get rid of a temp­ta­tion is to yield to it” (Os­car Wilde); “re­mar­riage is the tri­umph of hope over ex­pe­ri­ence” (Sa­muel John­son).

Then there’s the ir­re­sistible urge to give a new spin or a funny twist to a well-known adage: “Ev­ery crowd has a sil­ver lin­ing” (P T Bar­num); and “ab­sence makes the heart grow fonder – of some­one else”; and “fa­mil­iar­ity breeds at­tempt”.

Mr Haupt­man of­fers his own list of frac­tured proverbs that are orig­i­nal, at least as far as he could ‘de­ter­mine from a cur­sory search of the in­ter­net, quo­ta­tion an­tholo­gies, and all for­tune cook­ies ever baked’.

They in­clude: “One man’s trash is another man’s rub­bish”; “I cried be­cause I had no shoes un­til I met a man who had no socks”; and “He who wears his heart on his sleeve re­ceives hu­mon­gous dry-clean­ing bills.”

The tribu­la­tions of ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships are fer­tile ter­ri­tory, such as “If she can wrap you around her lit­tle fin­ger, you’re prob­a­bly un­der her thumb”. And fi­nally “You don’t need to find the mean­ing of life, as long as you find a life of mean­ing”.

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