TODAY we’re returning to our series of occasional blogs 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 ‘S’:
Strike while the iron is hot: This old proverb encourages us to be decisive and grasp our opportunities as and when they arise, rather than dilly-dallying and missing out on them. Like many of the best proverbs, it’s a very visual one, instantly generating an image in our mind’s eye of a blacksmith hard at work in his forge. As any blacksmith will tell you, metal can be worked most easily into shape when it’s fresh from the fire and glowing red hot. There’s only a limited time window in which to work before the metal begins to cool and harden, and then has to be reheated in the forge. Thus the blacksmith must “strike while the iron is hot” to achieve the best results, and it’s easy to see how this idea became a proverb with a much wider meaning for the rest of us. It is first found in print as early as 1566, suggesting it was in common use for some time before that – hardly surprising since every town had a blacksmith. Another phrase with a similar meaning is the Latin ‘carpe diem’, meaning ‘seize the day’.
Speak softly and carry a big stick: Imagine you’re called for an audience with the boss of the Mafia, who quietly and politely asks you to perform a particular service for him, perhaps one that you don’t really want to do. Would you do it? Chances are you would, because he’s the boss of the Mafia, right? He may speak softly, but he ‘carries a big stick’ and there’s an inherent threat of dire consequences if you don’t do as he asks. This fairly modern proverb echoes an earlier phrase about ‘the iron fist in the velvet glove’, both meaning that hard measures lurk menacingly behind an apparently soft exterior. American President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a colleague in 1900 advising him: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”, which sparked the widespread use of the proverb. Roosevelt himself said it had a West African origin, which makes sense as many of the indigenous tribes armed themselves with war clubs, essentially big sticks. However, there is little actual evidence for this origin and it is more likely that Roosevelt simply heard it from someone else before popularising it through his fame.
See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck: This proverb, like many before it, was a favourite to recite to children in generations past and will be no doubt well remembered, and still used, by wise older people. It extolls the virtue of thrift, because even though a single pin might be of very little value, to leave it discarded on the floor is an unnecessary waste. There is actually a second line to the proverb which makes it more of a nursery rhyme. It goes: “See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck; see a pin and let it lie, bad luck you will have all day”. Versions of this proverb are found in print from the mid-1600s and since printing was still quite new then, it probably dates from much earlier. Of course, the other reason for picking up a discarded pin is that you won’t regret it later when you accidentally stand on it. Now that would be bad luck!
Shrouds have no pockets: Acorn Stairlifts is a business born and raised in Yorkshire, where the people are renowned for being prudent with their ‘brass’, some might even resort to the word ‘tight’. Nevertheless, there’s an old Yorkshire phrase that goes: “Gerrit spent lad… they don’t put pockets i’ shrouds!”. Since a ‘shroud’ is the traditional garment worn by a recently deceased corpse awaiting burial, this proverbs tells us that no matter how much money you amass in life, you can’t take it with you when you’re dead. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs tried to do just that, ensuring they were entombed surrounded by their worldly wealth, even having servants killed and laid to rest with them so they would be there to serve them in the afterlife! In most cases, those worldly goods were soon ‘liberated’ by enterprising tomb raiders. The truth is, you can’t take it with you, so you might as well spend it in this life, or at least make sure you pass it on to your nearest and dearest.
Silence is golden: Having read this, you’re probably already singing in your head the chorus to the 1967 hit record by British band “The Tremeloes”, but the proverb goes back much further. Some claim versions of it are found in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but it was certainly in common use by the 18th century, when it is frequently found in written texts. Similar versions include “speech is silver, silence is golden”, and the blatantly misogynistic “silence is a woman’s most becoming garment”. Try that one today and you’ll earn yourself a swift rebuke! So what does this proverb tell us? Two things really; first, that silence is a gift to be treasured and enjoyed – a break from the noisy hubbub of the modern world. We all know someone who feels the irresistible urge to fill any silence with worthless babble. Second, it tells us that sometimes it’s better to say nothing than to speak. Or as another phrase puts it: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”