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Old Age, Sissies, and Fishless Bicycles

Let’s start the week off with a little quiz! Who first wrote or uttered the following statements?

  1. “If you make it here, you make it anywhere.”
  2. “Follow the money.”
  3. “A ball game is never over till it’s over.”
  4. “In the long run, we are all dead.”
  5. “Give peace a chance.”
  6. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
  7. “Old age is not for sissies.”

 

I’ll give the answers in a minute, but it would ruin the fun if they appeared so close to the questions, so first a few words about the soon-to-be-published book I cribbed them from: The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (Yale University Press), by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro. It’s a fabulous book, certainly the most enjoyable one I’ve read this year. (Of course, you’re taking this from someone who dips into Mencken’s The American Language for beach reading, so buyer beware.)

The authors define “true” proverbs as “full sentences … formulaic though variable in their wording, that express general observations, assertions or propositions, usually (but not always) with the presence of some figurative aspect or application.” One associates this kind of thing with Poor Richard and Aesop, but Modern Proverbs, which confines itself to sayings that originated after 1900, proves that new ones are coined all the time. The modern aspect is one of the two things that makes the book distinctive. The other is the editors’ use, in tracking down proverbs’ origin, of what they call “the indispensable new technology for language study: computer searches of the numerous electronic fell-text databases that are available,” including America’s Historical Newspapers, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, LeixsNexis Academic, Google News, Google Books, and JStor. These resources allow Doyle, Mieder, and Shapiro to gleefully demonstrate how many traditional attributions are spurious or belated, and to replace them with accurate ones. (In this the book resembles Shapiro’s wonderful The Yale Book of Quotations, published in 2006, which used the same tools to make Bartlett’s and every other quote compendium look so twentieth century.)

That brings me to the quiz. I have a hunch your answers were lyricist Fred Ebb (or singers Frank Sinatra or Liza Minelli), Woodward and Bernstein, Yogi Berra, John Maynard Keynes, John Lennon, Vince Lombardi, and Bette Davis. If that is the case, you got one right–Keynes. Here’s the rundown. (By the way, my one criticism of the book is that in many cases the authors don’t identify the people they quote, and as a result I can’t tell you who, for example, Roy Sahm is.)

  1. “If you make it here, you make it anywhere.” Julie Newmar, 1959. And, yes, she was talking about New York, New York.
  2. “Follow the money.” Henry Peterson, 1974.
  3. “A ball game is never over till it’s over.” Roy Sahm, 1921.
  4. “In the long run, we are all dead.” Keynes, 1923.
  5. “Give peace a chance.” Christian Science Monitor, 1923.
  6. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” UCLA football coach Red Sanders, 1950.
  7. “Old age is not for sissies.” Eugene P. Bertin, 1969.

 

Some familiar sayings aren’t associated in the public’s mind with a particular source, but rather seem to have always existed in the universal unconscious. A Dictionary of Modern Proverbs shows that isn’t always the case, as it tracks down the backstory of ”You can’t be a little pregnant”; “All publicity is good publicity”; “Publish or perish”;  “A tie is like kissing your sister”; and many others.

They also chart the way some maxims shape-shifted before acquiring full-fledged proverb status. In a 1958 edition of the Swarthmore Phoenix, a college newspaper, they found “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.” This subsequently showed up in various forms in the 1970s, including a Kurt Vonnegut novel and, in the Alaskan tundra in 1975, among some “graffiti scrawled on a wall in the weathered riverfront shack.” The following year, Barbara Hower quoted an unnamed “feminist” as saying, “an independent woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” That proverb—usually with the word independent left out—has been commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem. In 2000, Steinem said it was not she who originated it, but the Australian feminist Irina Dunn.

Doyle, Mieder, and Shapiro were apparently unable to find the original Dunn quote. But I bet they will publish it before long. In keeping with the techno spirit of the venture, they will unveil on publication day (May 22) an associated website at www.yalebooks.com/modernproverbs. There they’ll post corrections, additional information, and new entries. I’ll be checking early and often.

Correction, 5/1/12, 10:05 a.m.: The quotation from Barbara Hower was corrected from “… like a fish without a bicycle” thanks to a commenter.

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