Today we’re returning to our series of occasional blogs spread over the year and looking at British proverbs, their meanings and origins.
A proverb is a short, pithy saying that neatly expresses a commonly held truth or piece of wisdom. Proverbs have proved so useful in language that they appear in most cultures, often playing an important role in religion or spiritual teachings, as well as everyday life.
A great deal of common sense and worldly experience is encapsulated in proverbs. Today we’ll take a look at some beginning with the letter ‘C’:
Children should be seen and not heard: The rather old fashioned premise of this proverb is that while children might have a ‘decorative appeal’, they should be quiet and well-behaved, especially when in the company of adults. It was a popular notion in Victorian times, when children in some social classes were expected to almost be miniature versions of their uptight parents, adhering at all times to the socially accepted conventions. In fact, the proverb can be found as early as the mid-15th century, when it not only inhibited children’s natural exuberance but was sexist too! In its earliest form the proverb stated “a maid should be seen, but not heard” – a ‘maid’ being any young girl or unmarried woman. The implication is that while a young man might have something worthwhile to say, the same could not be said for a young woman. Thankfully we’ve moved on and most people now have a more liberal attitude, preferring to ‘let children be children’.
Cleanliness is next to godliness: Still regularly heard today, this proverb implies that it is good (godly) to be clean, whether in your appearance, the condition of your surroundings, or your habits. This proverb is found as early as 1605, when the interpretation of ‘next to’ was slightly different, meaning ‘following on from’. In other words, if you were a godly person it would immediately follow that you were ‘clean’ in all aspects of your life, or as Francis Bacon put it: “Cleanness of body was ever esteemed to proceed from a due reverence to God”. Conversely it was assumed that a lack of cleanliness signified a lack of godliness, or even an aversion to it. People judged as heretics or witches were often condemned by their own dirty state of that of their surroundings, taken as evidence their godless life. As John Wesley put it in 1791: “Slovenliness is no part of religion”.
Clogs to clogs in only three generations: Little heard these days and unlikely to be known by younger people, this is an expression originating in, and peculiar to, the north of England. Its gist is that no matter how much money a man makes to drag himself out of poverty, his family could be back there just a few generations later. Clogs were the hard-wearing wooden-soled footwear of the working classes, while wealthier people would graduate to more expensive and refined footwear. You could usually judge a man’s wealth by the quality of his boots! Sometimes it was a twist of fate or run of misfortune that would return a wealthy family to ‘clogs’, but there was another explanation that all too often rang true. It was that a poor man would work hard to build a prosperous business. His son, having known poverty and the hard rise from it, would work to preserve and expand that business and the income it generated. But his grandson, having been born into wealth and taking it for granted, would squander it away or sell it to fund a lavish lifestyle. And so his great grandson would be back where it all began, wearing clogs.
Crime doesn’t pay: Here’s a relatively modern proverb and a short one at that. It serves to remind us that however attractive the short-term gains of illegal activity may appear, in the long-term the true cost will far outweigh them. This proverb often goes hand-in-hand with others, such as “be sure your sins will find you out” or, even more extreme, “the wages of sin is death”! The concise “crime doesn’t pay” originated in the USA and is particularly associated with the popular 1930s radio show “The Shadow”. It was spoken by The Shadow himself at the end of each episode, delivering pearls of wisdom such as “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit… crime does not pay”. Another fictional crime fighter, cartoon detective Dick Tracy, also adopted the phrase and used it regularly.
A clear conscience makes a good pillow: Anyone who took to heart Dick Tracy’s sage advice and instead led a blameless life could testify to the truth of this proverb. It means simply that if your conscience is clear it won’t keep you awake at night, but if it isn’t you’ll never enjoy untroubled sleep. Although found in literature as early as the 17th century, it’s a proverb that rings just as true today. Like a great many proverbs, it urges us to choose the virtuous path in life and promises the rewards it will bring. The notion is also embedded in a similar phrase – to “sleep the sleep of the just”.