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Books: Dark Sayings

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THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH PROVERBS—William George Smith and Janet E. Heseltine—Oxford University Press ($6.50).

To give subtillty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion . . . ; the words of the wise and their dark sayings.

Proverbs date from prehistory, and the old ones are all anonymous. Time was when they were the necessary salt for meaty speech; nowadays they are a condiment sparingly used. “Our economists of today theorize about the ‘inevitability of gradualness.’ Our ancestors of the less cerebral 15th Century meant much the same thing, but they might say ‘Little by little the cat eateth up the bacon thickle.’ or ‘Feather by feather the goose is plucked’. . . .” Proverbs as a literary fashion died out with the 17th Century, but still remain the spoon-fed wisdom of the unsophisticated, the crutch for halting orators, the handy rubber stamp of hack-writers cramped for time.

Of the many collections of English proverbs, Compiler William George Smith’s is latest, most definitive. His Sisyphean task took him about 25 years, netted him over 10,000 proverbs. Because ill-health downed him before he could ready his book for the press, able Assistant Janet Heseltine supplied the introduction and index. Compiler Smith lists his proverbs alphabetically, dates the earliest published examples, gives illustrative quotations, but is not always able to explain their origins. Since most familiar proverbs need no translation for native English-speakers, few are given.

Samples: To leave no stone unturned (500 B.C.). Origins of this typical ancient proverb are shrouded in the past. Perhaps it refers to Greek crab-fishermen, perhaps to a legend of the Battle of Salamis, when a greedy Theban, digging fruitlessly for Persian treasure, was thus slyly advised by Delphi’s oracle. To rob Peter to pay Paul (Wyclif, 1380). Still waters run deep (1430). A hair of the dog that bit you (1546). God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb (thought by many to be a Biblical quotation, by a more knowledgeable few the invention of Laurence Sterne, this proverb goes back to the French, 1594). Better a snotty child than his nose wiped off (1640). Better be the head of an ass than the tail of a horse (1670). Never say die (Dickens, 1837). Silence in the pig-market, and let the old sow have a grunt (1894). Three classes of clergy: Nimrods, ramrods, and fishing-rods (1902).

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