In Search of Wisdom in Brewer's Dictionary

Donald Shephard

My wife bought me Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable for Christmas a few years ago. I began to read it remembering that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and that all roads lead to Rome. Now that I am retired from a life that was not all cake and ale and knowing that new brooms sweep clean, I have searched Brewer’s Dictionary for the wisdom that is supposed to accompany old age.

I have not let the grass grow under my feet and I am aware that a short cut is often the longest way around. I have collected until the cows came home from the book, all the adages, aphorisms and apothegms; maxims and mottos; sayings and old saws; prognostications and proverbs to distill the essence of wisdom from them. I have had very little luck. Perhaps, after all, I am not yet old enough to be wise. No doubt it will all come out in the wash. Still, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good so I may as well fiddle while Rome burns and while I am in Rome I should do as the Romans do. I seem to be hoisted on my own petard.

There are so many contradictions they make it difficult to know where to begin. Still, if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed will have to go to the mountain. I should look before I leap but, then again, he who hesitates is lost and nothing ventured, nothing gained. I should also make hay while the sun shines and strike while the iron is hot. Of course, fools rush in where angels fear to tread but, it is the early bird that gets the worm. I’ll settle for being an angel rather than getting worms. That seems to be an easy choice. Others are not so clear cut they seem to be a wild goose chase and contain the wisdom of many and the wit of none.

Many hands make light work contrasts with too many cooks spoil the broth. Here the essential sagacity is not so clear. I would opt for getting lots of help and not cooking but that may be laziness masquerading as wisdom and I would become a Jack of all trades and master of none. Cooks are only too aware that one man’s meat is another man’s poison and a watched pot never boils but then they may have other fish to fry. That sounds like the pot calling the kettle black. My motto in the kitchen is there is no smoke without fire. Perhaps I should save my breath to cool my porridge. Porridge is about the only thing I love to cook but you may recall that love is blind.

Speaking of love, Dr. Brewer states that absence makes the heart grow fonder which contradicts out of sight out of mind. Other similarly opposing views are expressed by a rolling stone gathers no moss; there is no place like home; blood is thicker than water; and, the obscure better kind friend than estranged kindred. Before you can say Jack Robinson I am all at sea with this when I would rather be shipshape and Bristol fashion. We are all tarred with the same brush if we spoil a ship for a halfpenny worth of tar. What kind of nautical nonsense is that?

Dr. Brewer includes both naval knowledge and ornithological uttering in his dictionary. It is as wise as an owl. For example, it told me that an eagle does not try to catch flies any more than a leopard can change its spots. Are these two peas in a pod or as different as chalk and cheese? I am growing more confused all the time. Why would an eagle want to catch flies?

Other birds are represented. While birds of a feather flock together it is said that fine feathers make fine birds. I have no idea what that last one means. Just like me, old birds are not to be caught with chaff and one swallow does not a summer make. I could kill two birds with one stone and tell you that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Speaking of Bush, I should remember that curses like chickens come home to roost and every cock crows on its own dunghill. Wise words are less partisan than I. There are mottos for the icons of both political parties. We are told to see the elephant and not to talk the hind leg off a donkey. I think that motto is strictly for the birds, a contrarian statement if ever there was one.

This contrarian theme runs through several apothegms. Something is said to be neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring. That is neither here nor there, neither one thing nor the other. You might say it is resembles this essay in that it has neither rhyme nor reason. Contrarians may have blossomed in rustic settings.

Many old sayings are rural in origin running the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Examples are you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and do not cast pearls before swine. I have no idea why you would want to do that but allow me to help you separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, and the men from the boys.

Many bucolic proverbs specialize in chickens which are not the fleetest minds in the farmyard. I am not to count my chickens before they are hatched and not to put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t know why this next advice is necessary but, I am admonished not to teach my grandmother to suck eggs. My grandmother was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and led the life of Reilly so I doubt she even knew she could suck eggs. If she had known she might have spared the rod and spoiled the child instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Wisdom, it seems, is as scarce as hens’ teeth.

While chickens have notoriously small brains, dogs are often seen as more erudite. I will not be letting the cat out of the bag if I tell you before the cat can lick its ear that every dog has his day and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks any more than you can run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Now, of course, the British cannot hunt with hounds at all. I also advise you to let sleeping dogs lie. I might well have heeded that one before starting this project because now the sayings are raining like cats and dogs. The old saw when the cat’s away the mice will play deals with house pets but what about other domesticated animals such as horses.

The following sayings come straight from the horse’s mouth. I read that I can take a horse to water but I cannot make him drink. That is a horse of a different color from do not swap horses in mid-stream or lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. I also read that a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse. How would you go about proving this hypothesis? First find a blind horse, I suppose. If the horse was blind, it might be wise to put the cart before the horse. This advice seems half-hearted at best.

Several adages contain only half-truths and are as old as the hills. Half a loaf is better than no bread. The first stroke is half the battle. Not to mention the cryptic, half is more than the whole. My better-half likes those. She is the one who writes the numbers on the checks.

Many maxims deal with numbers. I am not talking nineteen to the dozen when I say possession is nine points of the law. That is six to one and half a dozen to the other, Hobson’s choice. Nine times out of ten I do not go the whole nine yards. There is truth in a miss is as good as a mile especially when dealing with my investments.

There are naturally many wise words to guide me in my financial concerns starting with a fool and his money are soon parted. That is an ill omen indeed. I had better cut my coat according to my cloth because if I take care of the pence the pounds will take care of themselves. In his second edition in 1897, the good Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer wrote a great deal about pennies. He suggested that a penny saved is a penny earned. Some men, he said, were penny wise and pound foolish. He advised against robbing Peter to pay Paul. Having a discerning musical ear, I abhor bagpipes. Ebenezer says he who pays the piper calls the tune. I say, he who slays the piper calls the tune. Shoot the bagpipes too while you are at because in for a penny, in for a pound. That opinion is probably not worth its weight in gold; nor is it worth the paper it’s printed on; it may only be worth a brass farthing. But then, money is the root of all evil according to Dr. Brewer. I am sure he was aware that only the good die young. I doubt that he had heard that you cannot take it with you even if you put your shoulder to the wheel.

A little bird told me that, if I read between the lines of Brewer’s Dictionary, I will learn not to wash my dirty linen in public which agrees with people in glass houses should not through stones. Perhaps because it is a long lane that has no turning I have been looking for a needle in a haystack. Talking about needles reminds me that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Unless we are dealing with pureed camel, it is impossible for one to pass through a needle. Why not just say so? No rich men in heaven. The Marx brothers could have made a good routine out of that subject. I am more of a fan of Groucho than Karl Marx but, when Karl wrote in his critique of Hegel’s philosophy that, religion is the opium of the people, I have to concur. I may be opening Pandora’s Box when I state that I am religiously pagan and reject a lot of that kind of superstition. I reject outright an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth but, even if I did accept it, what does it tell us to do when a woman injures a man privately, as it were.

Getting away from religion for a moment, wisely I think, I am baffled by the maxim to take the gilt off the gingerbread. What does that mean? Perhaps it is a case of poetic license. After all, poets are made not born. I need a good friend to explain it to me because a friend in need is a friend indeed and two heads are better than one. So, in the spirit of, if you scratch my back I will scratch yours, and, one good turn deserves another, let us not kill the goose that laid the golden egg. That last sentence is inscrutably Irish to my ear. It might be an addendum to Murphy’s Law.

If Murphy’s Law were true, the goose would commit suicide. I do not agree with Murphy’s Law which states that anything that can go wrong probably will. I prefer to think that every cloud has a silver lining and faint heart never won fair lady. I guess a faint heart is acceptable if you prefer brunettes or red-heads. Ah! Well! Handsome is as handsome does. Perhaps I am being too negative because the darkest hour is that before the dawn. I should Carpe diem, seize the day. The Latin quote is: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero. It translates as: Enjoy today, trusting little in tomorrow. That correlates with eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. I must remember to join the Procrastinators Club before I die. Their motto might be Carpe postero! Seize tomorrow. That would be just what the doctor ordered.

In 1648, Robert Herricks wrote a poem along those lines not titled “Carpe Diem” but rather “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.”

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

Old time is still a-flying:

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

Perhaps in this age, that is preaching to the choir, more like carrying coals to Newcastle and it probably goes in one ear and out the other.

It seems to me that there is an adage, aphorism or apothegm; a maxim or motto; a saying or old saw; a prognostication or proverb for every season under heaven. I may have to pull a rabbit out of the hat because I seem to have a tiger by the tail. I have burned the midnight oil but I doubt if I have poured oil on troubled waters. Now it is all water under the bridge it is time for me to burn my bridges.

Unfortunately, at this late date, when I had hoped for the long-promised wisdom, the writing is on the wall, even though nature abhors a vacuum, I have met my Waterloo for it is all Greek to me.

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