“A watched pot never boils.” “Nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” “Little pitchers have big ears.”
Proverbs, adages, and other little things our parents said often intrigue me. My folks said things that I remember, and I probably say things my kids will remember, but they are not necessarily the same things.
As a kid I found many of my folks quotes kind of strange and even suspect and probably haven’t passed many of them forward. I did try. In the ’90s there was a concern that our children were not “culturally literate,” so I bought a book on what someone thought my kids should know. Some of those things were proverbs, so apparently I was not the only shirker in that department.
How about you? What did your family say that you remember? Or still say for that matter? Sometimes the words come back in one particular person’s voice, Mom’s or your grandmother’s, say, and add a little more color to your memory. “Let’s not and say we did,” Mom would say when we came up with an idea that seemed iffy at best. We knew what it meant, and she wasn’t advocating lying. I don’t know where she got it and I don’t know where it’s gone, but it does seem to have gone.
A lot of these quotes are rural in nature, and you know what they mean even if they no longer mean what they say. When Gram said something “didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” she wasn’t talking about the garden. Probably there was an urban relative, but modernly something worthless is generally referred to as some kind of bodily waste. My grandmother wouldn’t say that ever, even if she was just as contemptuous. I suppose I am familiar with more indoor lady exclamations than outdoor barn ones.
Still, some of the country life of days gone by sticks around. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” My Dad says, “It depends on whose ox is gored,” which is kinda bloody if you really think about it, but not as much as my Mom’s, “There’s more than one way to skin cats.” Sometimes I used to wonder about these things, but not often. “Little pitchers have big ears” was weird. I knew what the phrase meant when used, but I could see no connection at all between baseball and the size of one’s ears.
There are places to research the supposed origin of various sayings, but what I want to know is how one or another got so well-known. Shakespeare is often cited, but he heard it somewhere. Poor Richard, scripture, right, but how did the words of one person saying something for his or her own reason catch on? “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be good advice, but what if the original person had said “a turnip a day?” Or just, “Eat it – it’s good for you.” “Because I said so, and I’m the mother,” is not exactly a proverb, but most of us have heard it, if we haven ‘t used it. But who started it?
Some I took issue with. Who cared about mossy stones? You hear about the early bird, but what about the early worm? Judging books by covers was pretty much the only way to choose a library book – that’s what you do, right. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well?” Maybe, but what about the “lick and a promise” method often recommended? Grampy used to advocate “the right tool for the job,” which is good in general, but I thought it stifled creativity – like using a dime when you didn’t have a screwdriver.
All I know is I still don’t know where “had the radish” came from. I’m waiting, people.