Many a proverb makes no sense

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The Independent Online
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."