Here'a maxim: There are Many Ways to Take the Pith

If you Steal from one Author, it's Plagiarism: if you Steal from Many, it's Research
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The Independent Culture
SOME PEOPLE seem to be driven to draw up lists of things - lexicomaniacs, perhaps. I'm thinking of people like Jonathan Green, whose modern dictionaries of slang, neologisms, quotations and other things have long made my life more interesting. I'm thinking of Adrian Room, who used to produce dictionaries of such unexpected things as Place name changes since 1900 and the origins of trade names. (I have wasted happy hours in his company finding out why Subbuteo and Ferodo are so called, and I shall never forget learning that Foden, a lorry name in Britain, was a Portuguese obscenity.

Room, I think, once produced a Dictionary of Confusibles, or words that were easily confused, and he was in good company, because the then obscure Bill Bryson did the same for Penguin in the shape of a Dictionary Of Troublesome Words. (This was in 1984, when Bryson was described as having worked on the Bournemouth Evening Echo, now being deputy chief sub on The Times, and living in Virginia Water.)

But the man I admired most of all these was Paul Dickson, an American with an appalling compulsion to list and codify things. Among his titles are: There are Alligators in the Sewers and Other American Credos; Chow: A Cook's Tour of Military Food; The Great American Ice Cream Book; The Mature Person's Guide to Kites, Yoyos, Frisbees and Other Childlike Diversions; Dickson's Baseball Dictionary; and Names. But his greatest wheeze was to put in one book all the rules of life.

By rules of life he meant Parkinson's Law, Sod's Law, the Peter Principle, Prince Philip's Rule and Prince's Actuarial Axiom. Northcote Parkinson and Laurence Peter both originally devoted a whole book to their law and principle. What a waste, thought Dickson. He reckoned, with some justice, that he could dispose of them both in a paragraph and still have room left in the same book for another 1,500. And so it was that he found room for Prince Philip's Rule (Never Pass a Bathroom) and Prince's Axiom (Destiny is Statistics by Another Name) and indeed a lovely WC Fields dictum that I had never come across before (Start the Day with a Smile and get it over with).

Dickson's book, the New Official Rules, had several editions in the Eighties, dropping some rules, acquiring others, but sticking to the good ones such as Weed's Axiom (Never ask Two Questions in a Business Letter. The Reply will discuss the One in which you are less interested, and say nothing about the Other), or Mix's Law (There is Nothing more Permanent than a Temporary Building).

Then disaster struck. The Dickson book went out of print and we no longer had access to such ideas as: When someone says, "That's a good question", he never has a good answer; or Dudley Moore's Five Sages of Stardom*. For years, I have been recommending people to look for out-of-print Paul Dickson books. But they seem unfindable. Now, at last, it doesn't matter so much because Hugh Rawson has just produced If It Ain't Broke... The Unwritten Laws Of Life, which is published by Penguin today and does much the same sort of thing, even if his selection of rules are almost completely different, and shorter, at 500 instead of 1,500.

This is partly because Rawson's book is rather more serious than Dickson's. They both take Murphy's Law very seriously (If Anything can go Wrong, It will), but Rawson spends a whole page on Acton's Power Corrupts, which Dickson doesn't even mention, and he alone goes to town on Liddell Hart's Maxims of War, which Tony Blair would be advised to read. Still, Rawson is not exclusively serious, and some of his discoveries link up rather well with Dickson's. Take Kirkland's Law from Rawson - The Usefulness of any Meeting is in Inverse Proportion to the Size of the Group - and compare it with Dickson's idea that in any series of meetings, the continuation of the meetings will eventually become more important than the purpose of the meetings.

Rawson has Mizner's Law of Research, which was new to me, and is brilliant: If you Steal from one Author, it's Plagiarism; if you Steal from Many, it's Research. And he also has Miller's Law, which is so good you feel you knew it already: The Quality of Food in Restaurants is in Inverse Proportion to the Number of Signed Celebrity Photographs on the Wall. Yes, I am happy to recommend Rawson's new book, but I would still like people to look out for Dickson, if only to find Dudley Moore's funny, but sad, Five Stages in the Development of a Movie Star.

* 1 Who's Dudley Moore? 2 Get me Dudley Moore! 3 Get me a Dudley Moore type. 4 Get me a young Dudley Moore. 5 Who's Dudley Moore?

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