The Top 10: Untrue Sayings

What famous, widely accepted words of ‘wisdom’ do you find least true or least helpful?

John Rentoul
Saturday 23 February 2019 11:09
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Not all roads lead to Rome
Not all roads lead to Rome

This one was borrowed from Josh Greenman, opinion editor at the New York Daily News, who asked: “What famous, widely accepted aphorism do you find least true or least helpful?”

1. When you’re getting criticised from both sides, you must be doing a good job. Nominated by Anil Dash. BBC in particular, please note.

2. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “I hate this one; it’s utter nonsense,” said John Peters. When Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer he wrote the definitive scornful rebuttal.

3. Out of sight, out of mind. Either it or “absence makes the heart grow fonder” must, logically, be untrue, said Jeremy Benson.

4. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Science is against it, said Graham Kirby. Flies are attracted to acetic acid.

5. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. I was well into middle age when I realised that this dictum of Miss Shearer, a beloved primary school teacher, was a snare and a delusion. Often a job is worth doing only adequately.

6. All roads lead to Rome. “I don’t think it is true,” said Alan Robertson. “All roads that lead to Rome must also lead away from the city, and there are roads to nowhere, roads that go in circles and roads where either terminus doesn’t get a traveller particularly closer to Rome.” He also pointed out: “Observation has no effect on the contents of pots boiling.”

7. No such thing as bad publicity. “Only used by people who haven’t had bad publicity,” said Neil Matthews.

8. I before e except after c. “As an editor of three decades plus I found this utterly useless. Only 75 per cent of words have i before e, and when it comes to following c it’s virtually 50/50,” said Mick O’Hare. Once you have to qualify it with “when it’s an ‘ee’ sound” you know it’s a rule not worth having.

9. He who hesitates is lost. Nominated by Nell Minow.

10. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. “Sometimes it’s much better to give up and go do something more profitable with your time” – John Peters again.

Honourable mentions for David DW Voge, who cited the late Linda Smith’s addition to the proverb “the early bird catches the worm” … “but the second mouse gets the cheese”; and for Martin Terjan, who reminded me “the exception proves the rule” is only true with the widely forgotten second part “... in cases not excepted”. It means that “no parking on Tuesdays” proves that parking is permitted on other days of the week.

Next week: Titles changed for foreign markets, such as Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Coming soon: Most impressive predictions, such as Winston Churchill’s, when he was at school: “London will be attacked and I shall be ... in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.”

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk

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