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 nugget 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 ‘T’:
Tell the truth and shame the devil: Here’s a proverb that urges us to stick to the truth, even when ‘the devil’ tempts us to lie, because by doing so we defeat him. It’s a very old proverb, dating from at least the 1500s. Prominent preacher Hugh Latimer noted that it was a “common saying amongst us” in a sermon delivered in 1555. Shakespeare also made use of it in his 1597 play “Henry IV, Part 1”, when his character Hotspur says: “And I can teach thee, coz (cousin), to shame the devil. By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil!” This proverb’s reference to “the devil” can be interpreted in different ways. For most of its long history it no doubt evoked the religious depiction of Satan, a distinct entity who represents all things evil and constantly tempts us away from the straight and narrow. In a broader and more secular sense, “the devil” can also refer to our own inner worst instincts, such as the inclination to tell a convenient lie because it’s harder to speak the truth.
Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves: This proverb is self-explanatory, but it also has a meaning wider than a purely monetary one, implying that if we pay attention to the smaller things in life, the big issues will resolve themselves. This proverb was much-loved by stiff-collared Victorian moralists, who promoted the benefits of a thrifty lifestyle and denounced those who squandered money on unnecessary things… like enjoying life! However, the proverb predates the Victorian era by at least a century, with examples found in print as early as the mid-1700s. Like most proverbs (or at least those which ring true), it is grounded in common sense. You don’t need a degree in economics to realise that if you save up all your pennies they will soon add up to a pound or two.
The best laid schemes of mice and men: Here’s a fine old Scottish proverb which warns us that no matter how well we plan an endeavour, unforeseen circumstances can render it futile. Unlike many proverbs, we can pin this one down precisely; it’s a line from the Scottish bard Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns’ 1786 poem “To a Mouse”. The poem is Burns’ apology to a mouse – a “wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie” – after he accidentally destroyed its nest while ploughing a field. Written in Scots dialect, it tells how all of the mouse’s careful planning and painstaking work in building its nest, which it needed to survive the winter, is destroyed by a cruel twist of fate when it is demolished by the plough. As Burns wrote: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, for promis’d joy!” If you need the translation: “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain in place of promised joy!” This is not alone in being a line of poetry or prose which has evolved into a standalone proverb.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat: “Poor cat!” you’re probably thinking, but of course the proverb carries a bigger meaning than literally mutilating the moggy. It means that there is usually more than one way to achieve any particular aim, while also implying that the most obvious way might not necessarily be the best. Just why this proverb, widely used since the early 1800s, centres on ‘skinning a cat’ is a bit of a mystery. It could be that it’s a variant of a similar proverb in use around the same time and found in Charles Kingsley’s popular 1855 novel “Westward Ho!” He notes that “there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream”, meaning there are more ways of achieving your aim than giving your opponent a glut of what they most want.
Two heads are better than one: Here’s a proverb which is at least 450 years old, but still in common use. It simply means that two people working together – ‘putting their heads together’ – might be able to solve a problem that one alone cannot. Its figurative meaning is that pooling resources is more likely to achieve success. The saying is found in John Heywood’s 1546 collection of English proverbs, but it comes with a disclaimer! Heywood writes: “Some heades haue taken two headis better than one: but ten heads without wit, I wene as good none.” A rough translation from the Middle English would be: “Some people claim that two minds are better than one, but ten stupid minds, I expect, are as good as none.” So Heywood’s full version adds another element to the proverb; that the calibre of the heads (the intellect of those involved) also plays a part. It also hints at another letter ‘T’ proverb, that “too many cooks spoil the broth”.
To finish, here’s some food for thought in a proverb with a literal meaning, taken from an 1850 poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”