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by William H. Benson

September 22, 2016

     In James Michener’s book, The Source, he created a fictional character who made a pest of himself among both friends and enemies by walking around ancient Israel and repeating a series of shop-worn proverbs that he had stockpiled over the years. For example, when he would meet a person with a problem, he would quote a more or less fitting proverb. Not everyone appreciated his tactic.

     The truth is: for eons men and women have loved their proverbs. Even today, most authors will include a catchy saying at their books’ beginning, often a quote from someone well-known, in the hope that the quote will capture the book’s essence.

     The thesaurus lists a number of synonyms for the proverb: adage, aphorism, axiom maxim, dictum, saying, motto, byword, principle, law, conclusion, rule, epigram, slogan, bromide, cliché, platitude, saw, or chestnut. Although there are distinctions of difference, they all mean the same thing.

     The most quoted English writer is, of course, William Shakespeare: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” “All the world’s a stage,” “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,” and “two-star crossed lovers.” The Irish writer, Frank McCourt, said that when first exposed to Shakespeare, when a mere boy, sick in the hospital, he said that the playwright’s words, “were like jewels in his mouth.”

     Benjamin Franklin achieved fame and fortune in colonial Pennsylvania with “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” In each issue he included a list of axioms: “Fish and visitors stink in three days;” “Lost time is never found again;” “Speak little, do much;” and “Clean your finger before you point at my spot.” Throughout the colonies people read Franklin’s succinct words and appreciated his wit and wisdom.

     The most quoted American writer is, of course, Mark Twain. His definition of a classic: “One of those books that everybody says we should read, but nobody does.” “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” “Get your facts first. Then, you can distort them as you please.” 

     In Mark Twain’s fictional story, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer’s Sunday School teacher insisted that he memorize Bible verses, and if he did, he would receive a yellow or red or blue ticket. He failed to memorize even a single verse, but through shrewd negotiations, he exchanged his marbles and “a piece of lickrish and a fish hook,” for the other boys’ tickets.

     He ended with “nine yellow tickets, nine red tickets, and ten blue ones,” proof that he had memorized two thousand verses, but when the Sunday School superintendent asked him to repeat a verse about the disciples, he answered, “David and Goliath.”

     One quote falsely attributed to Mark Twain is the following. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant, that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man’s intelligence had improved in seven years.” He could not have said that because Samuel Clemens’s father died when the lad was only eleven years old.

     Another of Twain’s quotes he did say, but then a reporter transformed it into a humorous retort, even though Twain did not intend that meaning. He is purported to have said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

     The truth is that a London reporter heard that someone with the last name Clemens was gravely ill, living in London, and may have died. The reporter quizzed Mark Twain about his health. Twain jotted a note to the reporter, and explained that it was his cousin James Ross Clemens, who “was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

     These examples of Twain’s demonstrate two difficulties associated with the proverb: that someone could not have said it, or that its meaning was converted into something the author never intended.

     Another difficulty is that the saying serves as a blanket that covers all times, circumstances, and people; or that it may hide a hidden agenda. For example, if someone says, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” This, I say, is manipulation. The speaker wants you to adopt their plan, their idea, and to jump on their bandwagon, when a better option may be “not growing.” “Fool rush in where angels fear to tread,” wrote Alexander Pope.

     Woodrow Wilson said that World War I, was “the war to end all wars,” and that America was going to war “to make the world safe for democracy.” Neither bromide proved true. The Great War in Europe exceeded all other wars in terms of death and destruction and was a prelude to World War II.

     Donald Trump wants to “make America great again.” As far as I know and can see, America has never ceased even one day being great. A quickly coined phrase may or may not be true. Judge its merit, consider its source, and balance its import with your own past experiences. Think it through.

     I end with two favorite quotes. The author of the first is unknown. “The bitterness of poor quality is long remembered after the sweetness of low price has been forgotten.” Then, Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to belong to a club, association, fraternal organization, church, or synagogue that would be so foolish as to have me for a member.”