You know what they say:
What goes around comes around.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
And I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if that ain’t true.
I’ve picked up a lot of old sayings through the years, and the older I get the more I recite them. At least I quote the ones I’ve come to believe in.
There’s art in such expressions, the “pearls of wisdom” we collect. Sometimes they make a subtle point without exactly saying it, other times they speak simple and direct truths. And sometimes it’s simply the wit and rhythm of the words that keep us saying them.
I was using the relatively new truism “it is what it is” for a while—until I saw the movie St. Vincent and realized Bill Murray’s character was spot-on when he said what it really means: You’re screwed and you’re gonna stay screwed. So I dropped it from my repertoire of clichés, not wanting to sound so negative.
But I still find myself using the far more negative expression, “Life’s a” … er, female dog … “and then you die.”
Nevertheless, I’m a “half full” kind of guy, in reference to one of my favorite sayings that’s actually a question: “Is the glass half empty or half full?” I’ve been an optimist all my life, so I guess that gives me more to drink in.
Some sayings are brilliant, and are often attributed to famous people. Abe Lincoln gave us insight into the American electorate with, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but it was probably a ghostwriter who gave John Kennedy his famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It’s the “ask not” twist-of-phrase that makes it work. If JFK had started by saying, “Do not ask what your country can do for you …” well, that seems too preachy to me. Or maybe it would have insulted part of his base, sounding too much like an attack on entitlement programs. Too Republican, I suppose, for a Democrat.
And speaking of partisanship, here’s another great Kennedy quote: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.” Unfortunately, those words never became quite as famous.
A lot of sayings rise up from everyday life. I have no idea where life lessons such as “no need beat a dead horse” or about “closing the barn door after the mule is out” came from, but I’m pretty sure such equine-centered sayings weren’t born of politics. However, I remember how old-timers would talk about the “jack ass” politicians, often with homegrown expressions of their own.
There are plenty of localized sayings. I first heard the saying, “Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town” in northern New Mexico, while I’ve heard “if you don’t like the weather here, wait a few minutes and it’ll change” in just about every place I’ve ever lived. I guess some sayings sound more local than they really are.
Of course, catchy sayings don’t just come out of the countryside; there are plenty of urban expressions as well. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” must have come out of the Industrial Age, when this country was becoming citified. And surely it was big-city driving that gave us the saying, “You never really learn to swear until you learn to drive.”
I remember learning that particular skill in the locker room, but I see their point.
The fact is, “they” say the darnedest things. The master creators of lasting expressions should have a club of their own. If they did, Yogi Berra would hold an honored position—if his statement, “I never said most of the things I said,” didn’t create a scandal.
And I’d like to apply for membership, with a saying of my own: “A man’s home may be his castle, but it’s still his wife’s house.”
Notice my insight, tacked on to someone else’s famous saying? Brilliant, right? I think most married men will get it, since that’s why they create “man caves” for themselves.
OK, maybe I’m not in Yogi’s class, but no one is. So in his honor, I’ll close with one of his witticisms, one that seems to apply to this week’s column:
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
Tom McDonald writes this column for newspapers around the state as founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and is also the Roswell Daily Record’s editor. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.