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 ‘F’:
Fine words butter no parsnips: Here’s an old English proverb, dating from the 17th century, which means that fancy words and flattery alone will achieve nothing that is real and tangible. A similar phrase is ‘actions speak louder than words’, but why the apparently obscure reference to ‘buttering parsnips’? Well, when this phrase was commonplace, the reference was not obscure at all. Before potatoes were imported from America, other root vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips, were a staple of the English diet. Whichever way they were prepared, and especially if mashed, these vegetables were always better for the addition of some fresh butter, giving them a smooth and creamy texture as well as improving the taste. But, to paraphrase another saying, butter does not grow on trees, and neither for that matter do parsnips. Acquiring both commodities required some degree of effort, either in growing and harvesting the parsnips and churning the butter, or labouring to earn the money to buy them. It took action, not words, to put buttered parsnips on the table. The earliest known printed version of this proverb is in a 1639 English/Latin textbook, which reads: “Faire words butter noe parsnips, verba non alunt familiam” (words no family support).
Fish always stink from the head down: Many nations lay claim to this ancient proverb, which means that if there is something rotten in an organisation or even a country, look to its leadership (those at its head) for the cause of the rot. Because it is found in many regions, various versions of this proverb exist, such as ‘a fish rots from the head down’ or ‘the fish stinks first at the head’, but the meaning is always the same. Actually, a dead fish decays all over at a uniform rate, but the head is the first part to appear rotten as there is less flesh on it. As with most proverbs, the convincing image conjured up by the words is more important than the reality behind them.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread: Often shortened simply to “Fools rush in…”, this proverb tells us that rash or inexperienced people will charge headlong into situations that wiser people are more wary of and will approach at a more cautious and considered pace. When this proverb was coined early in the 18th century, to call someone a ‘fool’ wasn’t as derogatory as it is now. Rather than being a simpleton or idiot, a fool was someone who didn’t take life too seriously, who drifted along without much thought for what might lay ahead, who acted without considering the consequences. Unlike most proverbs, the origin of this one can be pinpointed to a specific time and place. It is found in English poet Alexander Pope’s 1709 work “An Essay on Criticism”. The ‘fools’ he referred to were the literary critics of the day, whom Pope considered far inferior to the authors whose work they claimed to critique.
Fight fire with fire: If something threatens you, then you should use that same thing in your own defence. A similar notion is found in another proverb – ‘set a thief to catch a thief’. The notion of making yourself equal to a threat is an ancient one and found in Shakespeare’s 1595 work “King John”, where he writes: “Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire”. But the actual phrase ‘fight fire with fire’ has a more literal origin. Early settlers in the USA found that long dry seasons brought the prospect of major forest or grass fires which threatened their homesteads and lives, but by planning ahead they could avert this threat of fire, using fire itself. By setting small and controllable fires ahead of the dry season, they could clear swathes of land around their homestead of any flammable material, depriving any later fire of fuel and creating a ‘firebreak’. An early use of the proverb is found in 1852 when US author Henry Tappan writes of how he lit his Havana cigar to ward off the unpleasant smell of other men’s cheaper Dutch tobacco: “As the trappers on the prairie fight fire with fire, so I fought tobacco with tobacco.”