Many a proverb makes no sense

Related Topics
Here is a thought for the day: "The perversity of nature is best illustrated by the fact that, when exposed to the same atmosphere, bread will go hard and crackers will go soft."

It took me several minutes' hard thought before I stumbled on the fallacy in this idea, but even after spotting the fallacy I still like it. It comes from Paul Dickson's The New Official Rules, the great guide to life that I referred to yesterday and which has a deeper purpose than just to amuse, if there can be a deeper purpose than that.

Ostensibly Dickson was just collecting a bunch of mock-scientific rules about life of which some are mildly pointless ("A crowded lift smells worst to the smallest occupant"), some sound meaningful but aren't ("A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg"), and some are brilliant ("The nice thing about being a celebrity is that when you bore people, they think it is their fault" - a quote from, of all people, Henry Kissinger); but Dickson's purpose is not just frivolous. He is trying to codify human life and work out a pattern in the crazy paving of our behaviour.

Nothing new about this. It was first done thousands of years ago when people started inventing or distilling proverbs. Human behaviour is an illogical thing, so you can't frame scientific laws to describe it or measure it; what you can do is work out a set of rough and ready proverbs to describe human habits.

It wasn't long before someone noticed that for every proverb saying one thing there is another saying the opposite - "Many hands make light work" and "Too many cooks spoil the broth", etc - but this doesn't mean that either of them is wrong. It merely means that human behaviour is so contradictory that you have to be self-contradictory to describe it.

The trouble is, though, that people gave up making up proverbs a long time ago, as though we now knew all there was to know about the human condition. From time to time we seem to be aware of this, as when people started producing slogans in the Second World War and these took on the form of proverbs (eg, "Careless talk costs lives" or, in the American version, "A slip of the lip can sink a ship").

In the late 1950s Mad magazine decided to update some of the best known proverbs, and as a teenager I thought these updates were hilarious. Some of them still work, such as "Fools rush in and get the best seats" and "Rome wasn't built in a day - it just looks that way", while there is a pleasing quality about "A bird in the hand makes it difficult to blow the nose".

There are also remarks tossed off by writers occasionally that have the quality of proverbs and do sometimes work their way into the anthologies, such as Alphonse Allais's "What's the point of getting your hair cut? It only grows again" and Nelson Algren's "Never play cards with a man called Doc, eat at a place called Mom's or lie down with a woman who's got worse troubles than you", but Dickson's is the only serious attempt I know of to make a large enough collection of these modern rules, proverbs, maxims, saws, tenets, whatever you like to call them, to masquerade as a guide to life.

Some of them are universally applicable, such as: "When you move something to a more logical place, you can only remember where it used to be and your decision to move it" and "Troublesome correspondence that is postponed long enough will eventually become irrelevant". "If at first you do succeed, try to hide your astonishment" is generally useful. "You always find something in the last place you look" is not useful, but it's still a nice idea.

Some are far from universally applicable. I remember in the earlier editions of the book there was a remark from Robert Morley, the actor, to the effect that "You can never be alone while eating pasta". It has now vanished from the book. I wonder why. Is it too introspective to appeal to Americans? Did the Italian food industry object? Did the Mafia object?

The rule of life concerning Dudley Moore, on the other hand, has stayed in. This is a new one to me, and applies very well to Moore though it would apply equally well to many another performer. It defines the five stages in Hollywood stardom as follows: 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?

I hope you feel uplifted and improved by this visit to Paul Dickson's world of rules. If not, I won't be surprised. As it says somewhere in the great book: "A public lecture is the best way in which a speaker can transfer the information in his notes to the notebooks of his audience without it passing through either of their heads."

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page


General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk