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  • T.W. Emory

Wise, Succinct, and Born of Experience.

In my novel, Trouble in Rooster Paradise, the protagonist is an old man recuperating from an injury. While residing in an assisted living home he tells a youthful caregiver about a case he worked on as a private detective in Seattle, back in 1950. At one point in the story, he makes an observation that he perceives is a bit lost on the young woman, and so he notes: “Kirsti’s look was more sympathy than understanding. Like my grandmother used to say, you can’t put an old head on a young body.”

I heard my own grandmother use that very expression. As was her habit when stating a proverb or adage from her youth, she’d say it in Swedish and then translate it. Another variation was, ‘You can’t put old eyes in a young head.’ My grandparents emigrated from Sweden and came to the U.S. in the late 1920s. Like most Scandinavians of that time period, they were born and raised in a rural environment, and what folk wisdom they absorbed tended to be more spoken than written. Thus, a person without tact had ‘no porch for his house.’ And many times I heard the implicit warning in the saying, ‘the crazy one does what the foolish one says.’ Some of the things my grandmother said were also rather earthy. For instance, news of a pregnancy might be met with, ‘Well, it doesn’t take a bucketful.’ And after all these years I still remember the chill I felt when my grandmother related the quick tale of the children who were making fun of a decrepit old man who turned to them and said: ‘What you are, I have been. What I am, you will become.’

The Bible and medieval Latin via The Adages of Erasmus have both contributed to spreading and making many proverbs a part of group consciousness in the Western hemisphere. As to the former, people will still speak of ‘iron sharpening iron’ when discussing how one person influences another for good. And we’ll still sometimes hear that, ‘Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.’ Or, who hasn’t heard that ‘the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender’? The Dutch scholar Erasmus helped keep alive such gems as: ‘the cart before the horse’ (to describe the reversed state of a normal situation); ‘to lead one by the nose’ (to denote being carried in a direction by another without any choice); and, ‘no sooner said than done’ (to indicate a rapid performance of any promised action).

Almost every culture has had its own distinctive adages or proverbs—i.e. simple sayings, widely known and repeated, which express some truth or some counsel that is rooted in common sense or experience. I particularly like the following Chinese proverbs: ‘Distance tests a horse’s strength. Time reveals a person’s character.’ ‘Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.' And then there’s this pithy one: ‘When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.’

Of course, deriving the beneficial wisdom contained in a proverb largely comes from both hearing and heeding, or, as an old English proverbs puts it: ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ Still, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’ But, while ‘ignorance is bliss’, ‘it is better to be smarter than you appear than to appear smarter than you are.’

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