My stepson, who was just three when his dad and I married, was a very cuddly kid. He would nestle in close as I read aloud, first Little Black, A Pony, then Just So Stories and eventually Treasure Island and Harry Potter.
And as he curled beneath my arm, or lolled on the sofa with his head propped against my leg, I patted his back or shoulder or ribs.
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest…” Pat-pat-pat.
“…an Elephant’s Child, who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity.” Pat-pat-pat.
One day he asked, “Why do you always do three pats?”
I was stumped, but my husband answered.
“Three pats for three words,” he explained. “I. Love. You.”
And of course he was right.
Now my stepson has grown up, up and away, but I still give my husband three pats. Even if he’s not within arm’s reach I can say, “Pat-pat-pat,” and he gets it. The familiarity conveys the message intact.
But familiarity is not always so well received.
There’s an old joke about someone discovering the works of Shakespeare and saying that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“It’s just one cliché after another,” he complained.
And George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, advises us to “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
One reason to do as George says is that when expressions are over-used, they become trite. They lose their power.
I defy George just a little bit in my heart though, because I love pithy bits of wisdom that strike small chords of recognition or inspiration.
For example, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” and “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes,” say that each of us cares about our people, warts and all.
Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good” tells me that it’s okay to produce something, even if it doesn’t measure up to my vision for it. Because frankly, if we all waited for the perfect story or painting or relationship to appear fully formed, we’d still be waiting for Kipling to get past “A curious young elephant…no, that’s not right. Never mind.”
One of the reasons I love those concise bits of wisdom is because they inspire me to try, try again, and they also show me that my fears, insecurities and hopes do not live only in me. Other people understand them too.
Even so, I hid my affection for small sagenesses. I didn’t use them in my writing or teach them to my journalism students, although once upon a time I did write “watch the path, not the obstacles” on a whiteboard in my front hall. I hoped it would encourage my young stepson and his friends to explore the world a bit – to take a leaf from the Elephant’s Child, I guess.
But underneath my fondness for quotations, I trust George Orwell’s smarts. And while they might not fight in George’s weight class, the Glimmer Twins are pretty clever, too. So I was surprised a few years ago to hear the Stones going on about being once bitten twice shy, and crossing the Rubicon. Couldn’t they have come up with something more original? I was disappointed.
Then one day, on page 341 in a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry, Professor R.K. Gordon introduced me to the historic use of sententious sayings in English literature. (And he used “sententious” in the nicest possible way.)
A burst of dopamine fizzed through my brain. Suddenly my penchant was validated by, of all things, gnomic poetry (no relation to the statues). Then, as these things go, it showed up again when a chapter heading in a novel contained a bit of wisdom drawn from the eighteenth-century Gnomologia. So not only did pre-Conquest bards use adages to pass along life lessons to their audiences, Thomas Fuller collected and published a whole book of the treasures!
My opinion of Mick and Keith bounced up again.
Because here’s the thing. Clichés earn their status because we understand them in our very guts. Proverbs stick in our minds because we believe them. Or want to.
“A mother understands what a child does not say.”
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d.”
And here’s another thing: Just because a thing is trite, it can still be true.