Proverbs Considered


A PROVERB, says the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘a short pithy saying in common and recognized use; a concise sentence, often metaphorical or alliterative in form, which is held to express some truth ascertained by experience or observation and familiar to all; an adage, a wise saw.’ This definition has the fullness and clarity which we invariably find in the Oxford Dictionary, though it might be extended to include rhyme. ‘A cat may look at a king’ is both metaphorical and alliterative, but ‘There’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip’ and ‘He who goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing’ are examples of a widely represented type.

Mankind likes to have its wisdom presented in potted form. Every civilized language is rich in proverbs, the same elementary lessons being common to all, ‘ though expressed,’ as I have said in the Preface to my Etymological Dictionary, ‘in a notation which varies according to national history, tradition, pursuits and characteristics.’ Collections of proverbs are among the earliest literary records of ancient races, and explorers find rudimentary examples in the folklore of the least cultivated tribes. Sometimes the difference between two languages is slight: for example, to ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ corresponds the German ‘Ein Sperling in der Hand ist besscr als zchn auf dem Dache’; but French says, ‘Un tiens vaut mieux quo deux tu l’auras.’ The ‘bird and bush’ saying is also an example of the way in which proverbs gradually settle down from numerous variants into one accepted cast-iron form. Its Greek equivalent is found in Theocritus. The first recorded English example (fifteenth century) is ‘A birde in hond is better than thre in the wode,’ the current form not being established till 1581. The difference between Aristotle’s ‘One swallow does not make a spring’ and the English form of the proverb is obviously one of climate.

The fascination which this mode of teaching has for mankind is shown by the number of synonyms, or approximate synonyms, for ‘proverb’ which the language possesses. I doubt w hether any other form of verbal composition has anything like the same number of names. The Anglo-Saxons, following their usual practice, rendered the Latin proverbium by the native compound biword, still surviving as ‘ byword,’ with a sense which preserves what is one of the most characteristic features of the proverb — namely, its condemnatory, minatory, cautionary character. The great majority of proverbs are less concerned with ‘do’ than with ‘don’t.’ As a rule they tend to inculcate that somewhat puritanical self-righteous kind of philosophy which the more epicurean philosopher derides. Lamb dissects several of them in his Popular Fallacies. Sharing Voltaire’s opinion of ‘le superflu, chose très nécessaire,’ he makes short work of ‘Enough is as good as a feast’: ‘Not a man, woman, or child, in ten miles round Guildhall, who really believes this saying. The inventor of it did not believe it himself. It was made in revenge by somebody who was disappointed of a regale. It is a vile coldscrag-of-mutton sophism, a lie palmed upon the palate, which knows better things.’

The first record of the word ‘ proverb ’ in the Oxford Dictionary is from Robert of Brunne (1303) and refers to the Proverbs of Solomon. As early as Wyclif we find the reproachful element in the word, the implication that a proverb is the record of a disaster: ‘Israel shal be into prouerbe and into fable, to alle pupils’ (1 Kings ix. 7), where Coverdale has ‘a byworde and fabell’ and the Authorized Version ‘a proverb and a byword.’ This use of ‘fable,’ with which compare French ‘Être la fable [or la fable et la risée] du monde,’ is naturally linked with that of ‘proverb’ and ‘byword,’ for the most dramatic proverbs are really condensed fables, or short lessons expressed by metaphor, hardly to be distinguished from the parable and the allegory. ‘Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’ is an obvious example, from the fable of the optimistic market woman. It has often been pointed out that many proverbs have opposites: for example, ‘Look before you leap’ is contradicted by ‘Nothing venture, nothing have’;‘Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves’ by ‘Penny wise and pound foolish.’ It would seem that the optimist and the pessimist have struggled for the mastery, but, on the whole, the moral is ‘Safety first.’

The other native name for proverb is ‘saw,’ literally ‘saying’ (cognate with the Norse saga). It is used in the title of a Middle English collection of about the middle of the thirteenth century, called the Proverbs of King Alfred. We still speak of an ‘old saw ’ and, after Shakespeare, of ‘wise saws and modern instances’ (As You Like It, ii. 7). The sixteenth century eagerly adopted the Latin ‘adage,’ though Shakespeare uses it only twice and ‘proverb’ about twenty times. The popularity of the word was no doubt due to the Adagia of Erasmus, with examples from Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. This work was first published in 1500, and much of the author’s life was spent in revising and enlarging it, a curious testimony to the attraction which this form of literature had for the greatest minds of the age. To Erasmus also is probably due the adoption by French and English of the almost synonymous ‘apophthegm.’ ‘Aphorism,’ introduced at about the same date, was originally the statement of some physical law, as in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. It would be possible, but profitless, to try to distinguish by definition these various labels for what the latest writer on the subject calls ‘a crystallized summary of popular wisdom or fancy.’


Proverbial expressions may be roughly divided into two classes, the sententious quotation and the traditional metaphor. When we say that ‘ Procrastination is the thief of time’ we are simply quoting, from Young’s Night Thoughts, a line which, by its natural effectiveness, has become a received maxim. ‘Coming events cast their shadows before’ is from Campbell’s ‘Lochiel’s Warning.’ This type is somewhat rare, generally traceable to its origin, and sometimes to be attributed, so far as evidence goes, to a comparatively obscure writer. It is naturally not possible to say how far the author has altered or remodeled a proverb already current. The fact that ‘circumstances alter cases’ must have occurred to many people before its formal statement by Judge Haliburton (‘Sam Slick’). ‘Imitation is the sincerest of flattery’ is one of the (apparently original) aphorisms in C. C. Colton’s Lacon (1820). ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning,’ from Foote’s Trip to Calais (1776) is a variation on ‘It’s a long run that never turns’ (1670). ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’ is Shakespeare misquoted (1 Henry IV, v. 4). ‘Every bullet has its billet’ was, according to John Wesley, William III’s version of a belief expressed by Gascoigne (1575) in the words ‘Every bullet hath a lighting place.’ ‘None but the brave deserves the fair’ is from Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, but long before Dryden’s time Old French said, ‘Jamais couard n’eut belle amie.’

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, ‘It is not best to swap horses while crossing the river.’ ‘Handsome is that handsome does’ owes its wording to Goldsmith (Vicar of Wakefield, ch. 1), the earliest of the older variants being ‘Goodly is he that goodly dooth’ (1580). In ‘Hell is paved with good intentions’ Dr. Johnson stereotyped a saying familiar to the sixteenth century. ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb’ is Sterne’s rendering of the familiar French proverb, ‘À brebis tondue, Dieu mesure le vent,’ which George Herbert (1640) had translated, ‘To a close-shorn sheep God gives wind by measure.’ John Howard Payne’s famous song (1823) fixed forever, in the words ‘Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,’ a proverb already found in Heywood (1546). In the quite mendacious ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ the nineteenth-century song writer, Thomas Haynes Bayly, attempted to refute the prehistoric truth, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ is a mystery. It has certainly been familiar orally to three or four generations, but apparently first attained print in Gilbert’s Mikado! It is obviously inspired by Milton: —

Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
(Comus, II. 221-222),

lines which were familiar to Mr. Harold Skim pole (Bleak House, ch. 18). ‘Accidents will happen’ is recorded from the eighteenth century, but Mr. Micawbcr is responsible for the addition ‘in the best regulated families’ (David Copperfield, ch. 38).

The true proverb is a condensed allegory. Though it may have literary record as far back as the Greeks, and may even be traceable in Hebrew and Sanskrit, it is rather the spontaneous product of human experience than the expression of the meditations of any individual sage. In its final form it is, in the words of Lord John Russell, ‘the wit of one man, the wisdom of many.’ ‘Beauty is only skin deep’ (though, as the American humorist says, that is deep enough for most of us), recorded for 1606, does not seem to me one of the true breed. Nor does ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ though it is found in Greek and Hebrew. These are moral maxims after the manner of Solomon, shallow and literal, while the true proverb should suggest a little drama and express its meaning by metaphor.

There is, in fact, a whole series of gradations between the natural proverb and the copy-book maxim. An example of the latter is ‘Knowledge is power,’ apparently first formulated, in Latin, by Bacon. The morals of familiar fables have often become proverbial, but the perfect proverb should itself be the recognizable germ of a possible fable, susceptible of many variants; above all it should call up a picture. Examples of the perfect type are ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss,’ ‘All is not gold that glitters,’ ‘Still waters run deep,’ ‘It’san ill bird that fouls its own nest,’ ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ in our use of which we are commonly thinking of things altogether remote from stones, gold, water, birds, and pudding. These are expressions of homespun wisdom suggested by naïve observation of the external world and current among the common people for centuries before being reduced to writing. Ovid wrote ‘ Exitus acta probat’ (Heroides, ii. 85) and in a Middle English romance of Alexander we read: —

Hit is y-writein, every thyng
Himseolf shewith in tastyng.

The transformation by a later age to ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’ is the result of communal conviction, not of individual selection. It. is the conversion of the abstract into the concrete, the restriction of the general to the particular, the reduction of ‘everything’ to ‘pudding.’

Finally, the proverb may be said to have completely established itself when an allusion to it is readily understood without explanation, as when we call a man a ‘rolling stone,’ a ‘willing horse,’a ‘dog in the manger,’ a ‘creakinggate,’ a ‘new broom,’ or a ‘beggar on horseback,’ or speak of ‘crying wolf,’ ‘ paying the piper,’ ‘edged tools,’ the ‘last straw,’ or a ‘stitch in time.’ It would seem also that any saying, however modern, has a right to be called a proverb when it is constantly quoted or parodied. Mr. Bumble’s expressed opinion that ‘the law is a ass’ is of curiously wide application. Tennyson’s ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets’ has recently inspired Mr. Guedalla to head an article on an inquest, ‘Kind hearts are more than coroners.’ Mr. Guedalla is, of course, the great master in this field. The most recent of accepted maxims suggests to him the reflection that, in matters of business, ‘Gentlemen prefer Monds,’ but his finest effort seems to me his description of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald ‘twanging his heartstrings’ in his Sentimental Journey through the United States and Canada (October 1929).


It would be interesting to trace the use made of our proverbs by Chaucer. So far as I have noticed, he quotes with some frequency sayings which were evidently in popular use, but his version often varies considerably from that now current. ‘Mordre wol out’ (B. 1766) differs from the modern version only in spelling. ‘Hit is not al gold that glareth’ (House of Fame, i. 272) uses a verb in a sense now obsolete. The gist of ‘ Wonder last but nine night nevere in tonne’ (Troilus and Cressida, iv. 588) is contained in our ‘nine days’ wonder.’ The proverb about ‘glass houses’ and ‘stones’ is first booked by George Herbert (1640). Chaucer’s early equivalent is clumsier: —

. . . Who that hath an heed of verre,
Fro cast of stones war him in the werre!
(Troilus and Cressida, ii. 867)

‘Till May is out, ne’er cast a clout’ appears to be comparatively modern, the earliest record being 1732, but worded rather differently. The sense is, however, in Chaucer: —

After greet heet cometh colde;
No man caste his pilche [cloak] away!

These lines come from one of Chaucer’s two deliberate attempts at proverb writing. The other, with its

Whoso mochel wol embrace
Litel therof he shal distreyne,

is equivalent to the French ‘Qui trop embrasse mal étreint’ or our ‘Grasp all, lose all,’ a favorite maxim of which a variant is found as early as Layamon (circa 1205): —

For the mon is muchel sot [foolish]
The nimeth [taketh] to him seolven
Mare thonne he mayen walden [can manage].

More easily recognizable is

Therfore bihoveth him a ful long spoon
That shal ete with a feend. (Chaucer, F. 602)

Enough of Chaucer, though I have only scratched the surface. Shakespeare often refers to proverbs, and is apparently the ‘only begetter’ of several; for example: ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’ (Hamlet, iii. 1), ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ (Hamlet, ii. 2), or the usually misquoted ‘The better part of valour is discretion ’ (1 Henry IV, v. 4). He is also our earliest authority for ‘Give the devil his due,’ though, as the context shows, it was already in use: ‘Sir John stands to his word, the devil shall have his bargain; for he was never a breaker of proverbs. He will give the devil his due’ (1 Henry IV, i. 2). He uses ‘adage’ twice only: in 3 Henry VI, i. 4, in reference to the familiar ‘beggar on horseback,’ while I he other example is the ‘poor cat i’ the adage’ of Macbeth, i. 7, ‘letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”’ an allusion to the very ancient saying of the cat that would eat fish, but would not wet her feet, which, if not obsolete, is at any rate unfamiliar to a modern ear.

An immense number of proverbs at one time in common use are quite certainly and definitely dead. A good example is ‘The parrot must have an almond’ (Skelton); compare with this ‘The parrot will not do more for an almond than he for a commodious drab’ (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, v. 2). It is not found after the seventeenth century, but appears to live again in the recent English slang, ‘A little bit of sugar for the bird.’ Another is ‘ Cat will after kind,’ which occurs in the Proverbs of Alfred, ‘For ofte museth [mouseth] the kat after hire moder.’ It is used by Touchstone as a rhyme to Rosalind (As You Like It, iii. 2), but is not found after the eighteenth century.

In others one of the essential words has changed. Chaucer has ‘I wot best wher wringeth me my sho’ (E. 1553) and ‘wring’ prevails up to Dryden, the substitution of ‘pinch’ first appearing in Urquhart’s Rabelais (1653). ‘Spilt milk ’ as a symbol of the irreparable was ‘shed milk’ until the eighteenth century. A curious transformation is seen in the metaphor to ‘bury the hatchet.’ From about 1300 a cessation of hostilities was described as ‘hanging up the hatchet.’ It was not till the end of the eighteenth century that acquaintance with the Red Indian rite of ‘burying the tomahawk’ resulted in a blend of the two expressions.

Sometimes an old proverb is completely superseded. Langland, Chaucer, and Caxton refer to the ‘beguiler’ being ‘beguiled,’ and Wily Beguiled is the title of an old play dating from 1606; but by the end of the seventeenth century ‘the biter bit’ had become the recognized form.


There is a great deal of literature on proverbs, from the so-called Proverbs of Alfred down to the present day. Of the earlier collections those of Heywood (1546) and Ray (1670) are the best known, the former probably inspired by the Adagia of Erasmus, Englished by Taverner in 1539. Heywood is the dullest of hacks. Nothing could be more depressing than the wretched doggerel in which he strings his proverbs together, the occasion for this outpouring being a query from a young friend contemplating matrimony and hesitating between a rich widow and a penniless maid. He seems, however, to have dragged in almost every well-established proverb in the language, along with many that are now quite unfamiliar and were perhaps never really current. In collections of this kind, the compiler is tempted to regard as a proverb anything of the nature of a comparison or allusion; for example, such expressions as ‘The fat is in the fire,’ ‘At my fingers’ ends,’ ‘A sleeveless errand,’ ‘A day after the fair,’ ‘To sit upon thorns,’ and dozens more included by Heywood are rather figures of speech than proverbs. He also gives us some similes of the ‘drunk as a lord’ type.

Ray follows the same practice, classifying his sayings in a rather irritating way under subjects — county sayings (these mostly from Fuller’s Worthies), ‘joculatory proverbs,’ ‘proverbs that are intire sentences,’ ‘proverbial phrases and forms of speech that are not intire sentences,’ and so on. He includes even more dirty sayings than Heywood, but, being a scholar and a gentleman, he apologizes for them: ‘The useful notions which many illworded proverbs do impart may, I think, compensate us for their homely terms; though I could wish the contrivers of them had put their sense into more decent and cleanly language.’ He also gives the foreign equivalents or supposed foreign originals of many sayings, his ‘French’ (or that of his proof reader) being of the type made familiar to us by our contemporary best sellers. A large proportion of the sayings he books were certainly never in popular use. He makes many edifying comments: in the section on ‘Proverbial Similies’ (sic) we find ‘As drunk as a beggar,’ with the remark, ‘This proverb begins now to be disused, and instead of it people are ready to say, As drunk as a lord; so much hath that vice (the more is the pity) prevailed among the nobility and gentry of late years.’ Or again, ‘As false as a Scot ’ — ‘I hope that nation generally deserves not such an imputation; and could wish that we Englishmen were less partial to ourselves and censorious of our neighbours.’ The edition here quoted is the third.

The most recent collection, and one that will supersede all others, is Mr. G. L. Apperson’s English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Dent, London, 1929). The compiler has embodied all that is worth salving from his predecessors, but his work, taken as a whole, is compiled from original sources — from the reading and rereading for many years of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Scott, the publications of the Early English Text Society, and other societies which print early documents, and, in fact, of all that part of English literature which may be called racy of the soil. I do not, however, notice any references to Hakluyt, Purchas, or Captain John Smith, where he would, I am convinced, have found earlier records of some nautical sayings, such as ‘Ship-shape and Bristol fashion,’ for which his earliest authority is Scott. Only after reducing his vast material to order has he supplemented it by occasional quotations from the Oxford Dictionary. Each proverb is carefully documented, with exactly dated references for its variations and use from the earliest recorded occurrence down to the present day. The order is the rational alphabetical, the place of each proverb being determined by its key word, while cross references are copious and helpful. Occasionally a Greek or Latin original is quoted, but considerations of space have prevented him from following Ray’s example of giving Continental equivalents.

It seems pretty evident that a certain number of proverbs booked fairly late are simple translations from French; for instance, ‘The game is not worth the candle’ looks like a literal rendering of the much earlier ‘ Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle’; ‘He laughs best that laughs last’ is first found in Vanbrugh (1706) and is referred to by Scott (Peveril of the Peak, ch. 38) as a French proverb (‘Rira bien qui rira le dernier’). For ‘A burnt child dreads the fire’ the seventeenth century sometimes said, ‘The scalded cat fears cold water,’closely translated from ‘Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide.’ Other languages have made hardly any contribution. In Shelton’s translation of Don Quixote (1612-20) are many sayings translated from Spanish, perhaps the most sententious of European languages. Some of these had a sort of literary currency for a century, but were probably never received into popular speech.

A curious phenomenon is the very late appearance of many saws which have all the atmosphere of extreme antiquity. The actual documentary record of these elements of language is, of course, largely a matter of accident, and investigators are occasionally unlucky in missing useful sources. ‘A bull in a china-shop’ is first booked in Smedley’s Frank Fairleigh (1850), ‘Right as rain’ for 1894 (I remember it in use long before), and ‘Two is company, three is none’ for 1871. The ‘thin end of the wedge,’ which one would be inclined to attribute conjecturally to Archimedes, appears from the Oxford Dictionary to be no older than the nineteenth century. ‘Nothing succeeds like success’ is attributed to Sir Stafford Northcote, afterward Lord Iddesleigh (+1887), the colleague of Beaconsfield. In my Etymological Dictionary I have given it, on the strength of an Oxford Dictionary quotation for 1868, to Sir Arthur Helps. To wash one’s dirty linen in public is a modern metaphor for a practice lately reprobated by an Irish journalist in the eloquent words, ‘This washing of dirty linen by those who govern only tends to undermine the Ship of State in a country which has so lately passed through the fires of sedition.’

A special section of the subject is furnished by the vast amount of proverbial lore associated with names of counties, towns, and villages, and usually reflecting local patriotism or prejudice. The collections of Fuller and Ray are very rich in these sayings, now usually inexplicable, such as the Essex saying, ‘Braintree for the pure, Barking for the poor, Coggeshall for the jeering town, Kelvedon for the lady of easy virtue,’ quoted by Ray. Sometimes a stupid pun is intended; for example, to ‘go to Bedfordshire’ — that is, to bed — is recorded circa 1600. The disobedient were warned that they would be ‘sent to Birchin Lane’ (in the City of London) and would ‘come home by Weeping Cross’ (a hamlet in Staffordshire), and the improvident were told that they were ‘on the highway to Needham’ (in Norfolk). Equally dull and obscure are the allusions to numerous unknown people whose memory is perpetuated in ‘As drunk as David’s sow,’ ‘As queer as Dick’s hatband, that went nine times round and would not meet at last,’ or ‘As Clayton clawed the pudding, when he ate bag and all.’ Sometimes in these phrases also an elementary pun can be detected: to ‘send by John Long the carrier’ is to send by a slow and circuitous route.

Mr. Apperson’s Dictionary of Proverbs should be in every academic library and on the shelves of everyone who is interested in the history of the language. One may perhaps regret that the compiler has not supplied more explanations, such as the tennis origin of ‘From pillar to post’ or the fantastic transformation involved in ‘To take heart of grace.’ Perhaps his abstention is the result of nausea evoked by the ‘anecdotic’ explanations to be found in Brewer and other early compilers and repeated without examination by later copyists. For this kind of compilation has often been carried out by the unqualified and has resulted in what can only be called impudent bookmaking.

I have before me a volume called a Desk-book of Idioms and IdiomaticPhrases, from which I learn, inter alia, that ‘jimber the kibber’ is ‘the fastening of a lantern to a horse’s neck and checking one of its legs so as to make the light swing as a ship’s light, a practice of wreckers to allure ships to shore,’ and that ‘“haeremai,” literally “Come hither,” is a phrase of welcome adopted in New Zealand from the speech of the aborigines.’ Along with such familiar English idioms as the above we find the elucidation of more obscure problems — for example, that a ‘fly’ is ‘a two-winged dipterous [does that make four wings?] insect common in dwelling-houses,’ that a ‘silly ass’ is ‘a person given to idiotic blundering,’ and that “‘Glad to see you back” is said on a return from a journey or voyage.’ After this we are not surprised to learn that ‘anon.’ is an abbreviation of ‘anonymous,’ and is not to be mistaken for a man’s name, that a ‘husband’ is ‘one who is house-bound,’ and that the Middle English ‘Heo is ful itowen’ means ‘He is full of strife,’ and not, as philologists have hitherto supposed, ‘ She is foully trained.’ I must apologize for quoting all this foolery, but the accident of the two books reaching me together made a comparison inevitable.


The phrase maker still flourishes and contributes periodically to the language. ‘Acid test’ and ‘The world must be made safe for democracy’ are both recent additions. The comic song and the comic paper sometimes throw off lucky phrases that may almost be called proverbial, such as ‘The only pebble on the beach’ or ‘The curate’s egg ’; but it does not seem likely that we shall ever coin new proverbs. ‘A man’s liver is his carburettor’ is suggested by a contemporary writer as the kind of maxim which might replace the old, useless proverbs; but the suggestion seems to lack conviction. True proverbs, as distinguished from sententious phrases, belong to the direct observation and simple life of a primitive age. Not only do we fail to increase the supply, but we allow the original store to fall out of use. ‘Who sups with the devil must have a long spoon,’ of which I have quoted Chaucer’s version, would have needed no explanation a generation ago. In fact, its use by Joseph Chamberlain once gave grave offense to a foreign power. The other day I tried it, first on a gathering of exceptionally clever young women, none of whom had ever heard it, and then on a gathering of learned philologists, some of whom were in the same sad case.

It is true that nothing can be more exasperating than the constant recurrence of proverbial clichés, though one can endure with patience the slow speech of the old-fashioned rustic, with his regular parenthesis, ‘As the saying is.’ Yet it remains true that this pithy lore, which belongs to the very kernel of the language, saturates the literary texture of the giants most deeply rooted in their native soil — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Scott. Shakespeare, especially, not only absorbed the sententious wisdom of the ages, but gave it forth again in a contribution to English phraseology so tremendous that no one has ever dared to try and measure it. Contemporary literature shuns such allusions. We may except Mr. Bernard Shaw, but he is no longer young, and, moreover, is one of the half-dozen or so writers who still carry on the great tradition of good English. I have recently had the curiosity to read, from this point of view, a quite modern novel by a quite modern young lady, the type of book described in the flowery ‘blurbiage’ of the publisher as ‘written with a daring and frankness that might shock a reader not cognizant of its high and pure purpose,’ and from cover to cover I only detected one fragment of proverbial lore, a solitary allusion to the ‘last straw.’

The same kind of aniemia (in spite of the fashionable and frequent ‘bloody’) afflicts our spoken language. The speech of the old, especially the country-bred, is still full of meat, but that of the young townsman is a very thin brew, with a kind of cheap cinema slang as its chief ingredient. Lord Chesterfield, who was of opinion that a national proverb was not becoming to the conversation of a man of breeding, may sleep peacefully in his grave. It is true that, in his day, the use of conversational clichés seems to have been almost a mania. Swift derided the practice in his Polite Conversation (1738). A comparison between his malignant cleverness and Heywood’s dreary monotony is a comparison between the genius and the hack. Mr. James Branch Cabell would appear to like popular truisms as little as the Dean: ‘She now spoke of more and yet more evil matters such as were very well adapted to incite Gerald to brutality. She spoke of the battle of life, and of the feast of reason, and of the irony of fate, and of the lap of luxury. She talked of the writing on the wall, and of the scroll of fame, and of the lexicon of youth, and of the cloud that had a silver lining. She touched upon the two seas, of troubles, and of upturned faces. She discussed the durance that was vile, and the hours that were wee and sma’, and the consummation that was devoutly to be wished for, and the light that was dim and religious, and the heat which was not humidity. She indicated the balm in Gilead, the place in the sun, and the safety in numbers. She afterwards gave succinctly the recipes for making a mountain out of a molehill, a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and a virtue out of a necessity. For no evil phrase of any sort was hidden from the wisdom of Evaine’ (Something about Eve).