A word to the wise – October 2014

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

by Gerald Waite

Remember when—as a kid, maybe five years old—you came running home with wide eyes to offer this or some other nonsense to Mom? “Jim’s brother said the moon was made out of cheese! Blue cheese!” Mom stepped back from the sink or the stove or the summer phlox, “Oh, it’s blue. I see. Well, Junior, believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.”

Aha. it stops you in your tracks, this proverb. This adage, this old saw or saying or byword, maybe maxim. It has a ring of verity. You have to stop and think, and then of course to start wondering about Jim’s big brother.
Some years later, in high school Latin class, your teacher peers over his glasses, repeating what he told you just yesterday. “No, no, the neuter plural is not the same as the masculine plural. Verbum satis sapientibus.” It’s not the first time you’ve heard this phrase, meaning “A word to the wise is sufficient,” meaning in turn that you ought to have remembered this distinction, and that you’d certainly better the next time you run into it.
Obviously, proverbial expressions are the subject in this month’s column. We’ve all heard, and probably used, scores of them. Where do they come from? How do they differ from other rhetorical expressions and so bring attention to themselves? With these and other questions and a copy ofThe Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, the exploration begins.
It quickly becomes clear that very few adages have originated in the fertile soil of a poet’s brain. They are, of course, a folk expression. Proverbs can be striking, and not only because we often hear them first from Mom or Dad, or, even better, from Grandma or Grandpa or our second grade teacher. They’re voiced as if delivered from a podium, in a tone different from that of ordinary speech, maybe even in a stentorian tone. Further, proverbs are in the third person grammatical voice: “This is solemn truth,” not “You oughta know …” or “I believe that …” The stone tablets Moses brought down from the mountain had the same tone. And sometimes a proverb is even in verse.
It seems roughly half of our adages offer warnings or advice—like the two above—while the other half simply are general truisms, like “Red sky at night, sailors (or shepherd’s) delight,” etc. Let’s take a look this month at the first sort, beginning with Mom’s caution, “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” The first written version appears way back in 1300, in Alfred’s Book of Proverbs, a work whose title tells us this saying already is a time-tested verity. Try your Middle English on this: “Gin the never leven alle mennis spechen, Ne alle the thinge that thu herest singen.” This seems to offer one end of the maxim and read something like this in modern English: “Don’t give credit to all that men say, nor all to all things that you hear sung.”
This proverb in a form we recognize also has long been with us. An 1855 volume called, curiously,Women’s Thoughts about Women, betrays it as a hoary expression: “ ‘Believe only half of what you see, and nothing that you hear,’ is a cynical saying, and less bitter than at first appears.”
This column’s title, at least in its broad meaning, can be tracked all the way back to the Roman poet Terence. A character in a play says, “Dictum sapienti,” or “Spoken to a wise person.” (Sapientibus is the plural form.) An early appearance in English is this in 1513 by a poet named Dunbar: “Few wordis may serve the wyis.”
Sometimes these wise words are just what we want to hear. Imagine you know the fish are biting, and you’re itching to get out there, but duty also calls: you really ought to squash those potato bugs out in the garden patch. What to do? Fortunately, you recall “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” (or Jill a dull girl), and your prayers are answered. It’s a truism that appears to come down from the heavens. A book of proverbs published in 1659 records it. However, we also have an expanded version expressing the contrary view. You may also have heard this, offered here by Maria Edgeworth in 1825: “… but all play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.” Edgeworth, a prolific Anglo-Irish writer, wrote many children’s stories, generally replete with moral lessons like this.
Let’s continue this next month. A fitting final saying, or superstition, is this for November: “Every falling leaf which can be caught in the hand in autumn, means a happy month the following year.” So get out there with your hands outstretched.
Word for the month:
Gin (jin), an “ardent spirit.” Think of this word, and you probably think first of the relatively modern product, drunk with a hint of vermouth by ladies and gentlemen. This strong drink appeared first in England in the early 1700s and was described in 1796 by Lord Mandeville as “the infamous liquor, the name of which deriv’d from Juniper-Berries, in Dutch.” Infamous indeed. It was then a very cheap liquor consumed by the poor, spawning yet another proverbial saying, “Drunk for a penny, and dead drunk for tuppence.” The colorful illustrator William Hogarth did a series on gin drinkers, all wretchedly drunk, such as a drawing of a mother passed out in her doorway, her squawling infant at her breast. The Oxford English Dictionary notes its exorbitant use “had almost destroyed the lowest rank of people till it was restrained by an act of Parliament in 1736.”
But an older, completely different and more English sense of gin traces back a thousand years and means cunning or artifice. This is the sense of the word in the quotation in the sixth paragraph above. Thence, the word gin came to describe a product of such ingenuity, that is, an engine, such as the cotton gin.
— Gerald Waite
Editors Note: Questions or comments are welcome. Write MM or email             marquettemonthly@marquettetmonthly.org

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