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Question: My sister and I were having an argument about the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine.” She thought it had to do with astral physics and quantum mechanics until I explained that it means if you fix something early, you prevent worse problems down the road (the stitch you make now, when it comes to sewing, saves nine others you’d have to make later on). She felt like an idiot. Then I realized I preferred her version. I mean, who the fuck came up with that?—Alex
Answer: In school when I was young, the principal gathered all the students one day into the auditorium for a presentation by a man from Africa. I don’t remember where in Africa he was from. I don’t remember why he was there. But I recall him beginning his presentation saying something like, “I would like to get to know you. I would like you to tell me something about your country, and then I will tell you something about mine. In my country, proverbs and idioms are very important. They are pieces of wisdom everyone uses in conversation. They say a lot about a country’s character. What are some of the phrases your country uses? Can you explain one to me?”
Apparently, in this man’s country, it was OK to quiz nine-year-olds about linguistics before lunch. He stood with his arms crossed, waiting for an answer. The room was silent. Hundreds of children twitched in their seats, unwilling to embarrass themselves for the sake of this strange man’s enlightenment.
After a minute, the principal became uncomfortable. “Come on,” he said. “How about, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned?’ Who knows what that means?” We still said nothing, wondering how much longer the silence could possibly continue. Didn’t this man realize we’d never speak—that we’d hold our tongues? That we were tough nuts to crack?
The principal looked at the visitor and smiled sheepishly, but it didn’t mollify him. “Don’t you children know any?” the African man challenged, looking around the room. “Some smart child must know one they can explain to me,” he said.
A teacher sitting a few rows behind me shouted out, “the early bird catches the worm,” but the man ignored her and continued staring at us, dismayed by these American children, a bunch of bad eggs for sure, who had no conversational legs to stand on, whose cats had their tongues, unable to talk turkey. Me, I seethed in my chair, wracking my brains for colloquialisms but coming up empty. I was filled with shame and anger: shame from being so ignorant of my own culture that I couldn’t think of a single dumb phrase under pressure; angry that this guy needed us to explain something as obvious as why he could have cake if wanted, but wouldn’t be allowed to eat it afterwards.
Idioms and proverbs—especially idioms—are crutches: recycled phrases that have outlived their value, only we’re too lazy to replace them. And they’re everywhere. Western newspaper stories about Middle Eastern politics, to add color, invoke fossilized idioms to explain battle tactics, as though The Prince in Arabic is “four goats in the tent and Ahmad still made milk from dirt.” Local news reports catch people defending criminals saying so-and-so was the salt of the earth, a peach, someone who was simply in a stew for the moment.
Idioms and idiots go together, I thought during that assembly. Just like two peas in a pod.
But when are they ever updated? Why do new words so quickly join the public conversation—“the decider,” “emo,” “proactive”—but no one’s inventing little word puzzles for us to solve?
My fellow Americans, we are learning new things about ourselves every day, and yet our idioms remain in a pickle, full of baloney! Therefore, this column is being turned into a two-parter, with a contest and a prize. Together, you, dear reader, and we, TMN types, are going to change the world. Here’s how:
1. Send us a new idiom or proverb, three max. Each should be accompanied by an explanation as to what your original phrase means (e.g., “‘Marrow deserves a silver spoon’—the rustic joys of life are worthy of high-class appreciation”). Please also include your contact information.
2. We’ll choose the wittiest of the bunch and publish them in an upcoming Non-Expert column, and the best new idiom or proverb will be printed on a small, sweet batch of merch. The winning author of course will receive some free merch in the mail, and the rest will be available for sale through TMN.
3. Can’t you picture it? You, strutting down Main Street, starting linguistic trends? Maybe we’ll get the Decider on our side.
4. That’s it. Idiom-ize us.
Send to: . Sorry, this contest is closed.