Better late than never!

wordhistoryWell I’m due back at work next week and have started to think about my plans to improve my students’ vocabulary. I’ve already instigated ‘word of the day’ in Grades 9 and 10 (students have to find me and give me the correct definition and a sentence using it correctly to win a prize – not from the Internet!). Unfortunately so far the same students have tended to find me which somewhat defeats the purpose! I’ll have to try something else.

Aside from general vocabulary, there are so many other areas that are difficult to introduce into general study: idioms, phrasal verbs, stock phrases and proverbs. Interestingly, a lot of the proverbs that I have covered over the years have parallels in other languages. Often the idea or words aren’t exactly the same, but the meaning is. For example, one proverb in Indonesian is ‘Air cucuran jatuhnya ke pelimbahan juga’ which can be translated as ‘ water that drips from the roof will eventually go to the reservoir’. Our equivalent would be ‘an apple never falls far from the tree’. But how did proverbs become such a huge part of individual culture? Who decided the apple metaphor would mean ‘like father like son’?

To quench my curiosity, I visited Google again and discovered that it is thanks to etymologists that we know the history of our language. They research the history of words (an interesting job) and use literature, religious archives and other sources, to track down the provenance or origination of any word or phrase. Some of them are hundreds of years old – like these familiar sayings:

‘Better late than never’ was coined by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale, Canterbury Tales, circa 1386. Used by all of us at some point, I’m sure!

‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’  was first expressed in print by William Congreve in his comedy of manners The Old Batchelour in 1693.

Speak of the devil, and he will appear’ is very old and appears in various Latin and Old English texts from the 16th century.  I think most of us would say ‘talk of the devil’.

‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ was recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies – one of the oldest English proverbs around. Someone said this to me in a conversation just a few weeks ago!

What I find fascinating about this is how familiar they are and how, hundreds of years later, they are still relevant. It’s amazing to me that these short phrases have come down through the ages as part of our language and we use them still. I’m sure new proverbs are being invented and will be recorded in the mists of the future as ‘ancient’ but right now, I love the fact that when I say ‘better late than never’ to someone, I know that I’m following an ancient path, one set by Chaucer over 600 years ago!

Do you use proverbs? Do you have one that you use a lot? Have you found equivalents in other cultures


Categories: Just Plain Blog

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3 replies

  1. Fascinating! Thanks, Sally. 🙂

  2. Proverbs and sayings are like linguistic shorthand. It often saves us from speaking several sentences because by using them we convey so much more than just the words spoken. I agree that the stories behind these often pithy sayings are fascinating. One of my favourites is, Beyond the Pale.

    You’ll find the story in this fabulous little paperback

    Check this out, sign up for the newsletter, you’ll love it

  3. This information is truly amazing. I have heard, and used, all of these. Some quite often. What a wonderful idea to think that I was saying, and surely will say again, a phrase that began in 1175 in “Old English Homilies”! I do tend to use ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ a lot. But then again, I say ‘Better Late Than Ever’ quite a bit, (I am a woman), :3 and ‘Speak of the Devil’ when someone appears that I was just talking about. Thank you for sharing this information.

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