24 July 2013

I don't think that proverb means what you think it means

One common gripe on the interwebz is people who know & appreciate correct spelling, grammar and punctuation complaining about people who either don't know or don't care about correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. What are they doing expressing themselves online if they can't spell?!

Often an assumption is made that people who don't know the difference between your & you're, or their, they're and there, are stupid, incapable of critical thinking, and just plain wrong. I do sometimes feel distress when I see incorrect spelling, sloppy grammar and overly creative punctuation, but I try not to assume that it reflects in any way on the writer's intelligence or common sense - it most likely means that they didn't have a great learning experience in their early education (and there could be any number of reasons for that), and/or they aren't all that interested in language (not everyone is), and/or English is not their first language (my grammar, spelling and punctuation in French are pretty amusing/appalling, I'm sure).

All of that is both something that I've been wanting to say for a while, and a preamble to a gripe of mine: the misuse of sayings and aphorisms.

There are lots of wonderful, sometimes mutually contradictory, aphorisms and sayings in the English language/s (I only know ones in English - if you'd like to let me know ones in other languages, with translation, in the comments - please do!).

He who hesitates is lost. Look before you leap. You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Many hands make light work. The devil finds work for idle hands. A cat may look at a king. Curiosity killed the cat -

Okay, now let's look at that one. "Curiosity killed the cat" has been around for a while, and we all know what it means, right?

(It's not referring to the exploration vehicle on Mars)

(no cat was harmed in the making of this photoshopped picture)

It means that a cat who is curious will poke its nose into something that will kill it.
Or does it?

The original form is believed to be "Care will kill a cat" - 'care' here in the sense of sorrows and cares, the opposite of carefree.

A line from a Ben Jonson play is "Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman" (sourced from the Wikipedia page on "Curiosity killed the cat").
Shakespeare used it too - "What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care." (from Much Ado About Nothing, and also found on Wikipedia, bless its little cotton socks)

As late as 1898, a Dictionary of Phrase and Fable had this entry:
Care killed the Cat.
It is said that "a cat has nine lives," yet care would wear them all out.
(from Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, again via Wikipedia)
Wikipedia helpfully says that it is not known why the phrase changed to give 'curiosity' instead of 'care' as the cause of proverbial cat's death. Doesn't that pique your curiosity? Before your interest reaches its peak, let's take a peek at some other possible meanings...

The original form implies that it was curiosity in the sense of worry about whys and hows that killed the cat, so rather than trying to protect a cat from dying while trying to satisfy its urge to know things, allow your cat to explore and discover, and that will save it. As the rejoinder to the amended proverb suggests: "Curiosity killed the cat; Satisfaction brought it back".

So if your cat is pining with curiosity on one side of a closed door, open the door! The cat will probably wander back and forth, sniff around a bit, and then go back to where it started, satisfied - for the moment.

Nota Bene: this does not apply if the cat is curious about a closed door with HAZCHEM or DANGER: RADIATION warnings on it.

Another change of word-meaning that has led to conceptual misunderstanding is seen in the Biblical line which is translated as "Suffer the little children to come unto me" in the King James Bible. To suffer something meant to permit or allow it, in the English of that time, so that quote means "Allow the little children to come to me". No one is meant to be suffering distress or discomfort in this situation; not the children, not Jesus. Understanding definition and sentence structure makes a big difference.

My least-favourite misused saying is "No gain without pain", usually heard in the context of physical fitness. This makes me howl with rage (inwardly; I'm too polite and conventional to howl outwardly when people say silly things). I won't go into the difference between feeling muscles working or stretching, and feeling overstrain or tearing. Pain is a warning sign of illness or injury, not something to be ignored or an indication of success (unless your aim is creating pain, but that's a different story from achieving fitness).

The original version is "No gains without pains", and these pains are not labour pains or other forms of strong discomfort. Have you heard the word 'painstaking'? You may not have; it's less commonly used than it once was. Words with similar meanings are meticulous, assiduous, sedulous. To be painstaking, to take pains, means to be diligent, careful and thorough in your work. So the original saying means "No gains without being diligent, careful and thorough" - which makes a lot more sense than "No gains without ouchiness".

Obviously the "No gain without pain" version rhymes, is shorter, and is easier to say while leading an aerobics class - but it still means "be diligent, careful and thorough if you want to achieve your aims".


Graham Clements said...

Now I know why my sore shoulder is not helping me swim faster, there certainly has not been any gain from its pain. But if I took the painstaking time to let my shoulder heal, then maybe there would be a gain.

greenspace said...

I hope you can give your shoulder time to heal, Graham, and enjoy being able to swim pain-free once it's better :-)