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“Sayings, Wise and Otherwise,” (also in the “The Sayings of Dr. Bushwhacker and Other Wise Men”) by Frederic S. Cozzens; American Book Exchange, New York; 1880; pp. 48-54.



Old Phrases.

“F OR my part,” said the Doctor, “I do not see how we could get along without them. The old phrases, the idioms, the apothegms of a people are the gold and silver coins of their language, bearing a proportionate value, as many hundred times, to the common stock of words, as these do to the copper currency. Sir, if you will get the ‘Lessons on Proverbs,’ by Richard Chevenix Trench, you will find you have a sub-treasury of wisdom, my learned friend.”

“Do you not think, Doctor, there is a coarseness in familiar proverbs that diminishes their value in polite society?””

“No, sir, I do not think so,” replied the Doctor vehemently. “To be sure, there may be, here and there one in which an allusion might offend a sensitive mind; but, generally speaking, they are rather robust, instead of coarse, strong without being indelicate. Cervantes felicitously calls them ‘Sentencias brevas sacadas de la luenga y discreta experiencia’ — short sentences drawn from long and wise experience. Common enough are they among 49 uneducated people, but not the less valuable for that reason, sir; proverbs may be called the literature of the illiterate — another mouthful of the Mumm, sir — thank you.”

“How do you like that wine, Doctor?”

“Grand, sir; glorious, sir; ‘Mumm’s the word,’ sir. If Shakspeare were living, sir, he would forswear sack, and say ‘Mumm‘ — ‘a jewel of a wine, sir —’ Jewel Mumm.”

“The phrase you have just used, Doctor, is a common one.”

“ ‘Mumm’s the word?’ True, my learned friend. Dr. Johnson, that stupendous lexicographer, remarks of the word mumm, it may be observed that when it is pronounced it leaves the lips closed, thus,” (lips in sculptured silence.)

“How did that phrase originate, Doctor?”

“That, sir, is a question I cannot answer. There are phrases, sir, beyond the scope of records, written or printed, so old, sir, that, to use the words of our friend Blackstone, ‘the memory of man runneth not to the contrary’ — they were always in use. Others we can trace at once to their originals; such as, ‘How we apples swim,’ to a fable in Æsop; or, ‘To see ourselves as others see us,’ to a poem of Burns; there are legions of phrases from the Bible, not one of which inculcates a sentiment not divine in its humanity; there are scores from Shakspeare, scores from Pope, scores from Young, some from 50 Byron, from Milton, Cowper, Thomson, Campbell, Goldsmith, Spenser, Addison , Congreve, Prior, Sir Philip Sidney, Gray, Collins, Cowley, our own poets, sir — and Daniel Webster, sir, Halleck and Irving.”

“There is no fear of a language, Doctor, in which such coin is current.”

“No, sir; nor of a people! But there are other phrases which, to the undisciplined ear, seem coarse and vulgar, yet involving a story clever enough in itself to be preserved.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, ‘The gray mare is the better horse.’ We know very well the line is in Prior’s Epilogue to Lucius; but the story from which the phrase is derived is something like this: A gentleman, who had seen the world, one day gave his eldest son a span of horses, a chariot, and a basket of eggs. ‘Do you,’ said he to the boy, ‘travel upon the high road until you come to the first house in which there is a married couple. If you find the husband is the master there, give him one of the horses. If, on the contrary, the wife is the ruler, give her an egg. Return at once if you part with a horse, but do not come back so long as you keep both horses, and there is an egg remaining.’ Away went the boy full of his mission, and just beyond the borders of his father’s estate lo! a modest cottage. He alighted from the chariot and knocked at the door. The good wife opened it for him and curtesied. ‘Is your husband at home?’ 51 ‘No;’ but she would call him from the hay field. In he came, wiping his brows. The young man told them his errand. ‘Why,’ said the wife, bridling and rolling the corner of her apron, ‘I always do as John wants me to do; he is my master — an’t you, John?’ To which John replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘Then’ said the boy, ‘I am to give you a horse; which will you take?’ ‘I think,’ said John, ‘as how that bay gelding seems to be the one as would suit me the best.’ ‘If we have a choice, husband,’ said the wife, ‘I think the gray mare will suit us better.’ ‘No,’ replied John, ‘the bay for me; he is more square in front, and his legs are better.’ ‘Now,’ said the wife, ‘I don’t think so; the gray mare is the better horse; and I shall never be contented unless I get that one.’ ‘Well,’ said John, ‘if your mind is sot on it, I’ll give up; we’ll take the gray mare.’ ‘Thank you,’ said the boy; ‘allow me to give you an egg from this basket; it is a nice fresh one, and you can boil it hard or soft as your wife will permit.’ The rest of the story you may imagine; the young man came home with both horses, but not an egg remained in his basket.”

“That is a scandalous story, Doctor.”

“True, my learned friend; but after we finish this Mumm, I will tell you another with a better moral.”


Old Phrases = Continued.

“Let us,” said the Doctor, “take up the familiar, every day language, — the language, sir, not of the drawing room, but of the street — the language, not of the beau, but of the b’hoy, sir, and dissect it.” Here the Doctor rolled up his wristbands, and armed himself with a fruit-knife, in the most formidable manner. “Let us,” he continued, tapping the ringing rim of the finger-bowl, “dissect it, sir, and expose its muscles, ligaments, and tendons, its veins and its arteries, its viscera, its nerves and its ganglionic system, and sir, we will find that these old phrases are the very bones of the system, sir, the framework that sustains and supports all the rest. Yes, my learned friend, take even a tissue of slang, and you will find it full of marrow-bones!”

“Among some people the range of ideas being limited ——”

“The range of ideas being limited,” interrupted the Doctor, “the range of expression is necessarily limited also. Yet, you will see how readily, even with a small stock of words, the b’hoys make themselves understood. One word passes muster for many, by dint of inflection and gesture: a single phrase sir, will often convey as many separate and opposite meanings, as a single string on Ole Bull’s violin will express separate and opposite 53 sentiments. Why, sir, the slang phrase, ‘that’s so,’ is used to signify affirmation, confirmation, doubt, interrogation, irony, triumph, and despair; and a host besides of shades of sense relative to the subject in hand. ‘You’d better believe it,’ is sometimes a taunt, or a menace, as the case may be; sometimes a grave and weighty opposite — that is, ‘You had better not believe it.’ Now my learned friend, if we could only trace these phrases, and betimes we will, we would find them to be, not the property of this generation, but the original expressions of a people very much fore-shortened in language, some centuries behind the curtain of Shakspeare; or else the result, the quotient, of some old story, from which every thing else had been subtracted.”

“Doctor, pardon me for interrupting you.”

“Willis,” continued the Doctor, “did originate some phrases, sir, such as ‘the upper ten thousand.’ You see how it has been trimmed down to ‘the upper ten,’ and by and by it will be used to signify a class simply, without any reference to its previous purport. And in this connection the facile terminal ‘dom‘ which so often has brought up the rear-guard of a sentence in the papers, is due to Willis, who struck it out in ‘japonicadom’ — a most happy and felicitous phrase.”

“Doctor, I would like ——”

“Some authors write whole volumes without a catch-word — — ”


“To ask if you ——”

“Others again press a score of them in a ——”

“Can tell me ——”

“Chapter. Well, sir?”

“Whether you can tell me what was the origin of the phrase — ‘a fish story?’”

“Certainly,” responded Dr. Bushwhacker; “everybody knows that: An old Indian, who had been converted by the missionaries, got along very well as far as ’Jonah and the whale,’ where he faltered a little, but finally passed over that, and went on. At last he reached the history of Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, in the fiery furnace. ‘Me no believe that,’ said the Indian. ‘But you must believe it,’ said the missionaries. The Indian dissented; but the missionaries cleved to the point of faith at issue. At last, after a prolonged debate, in which the Indian distinguished himself by a display of natural eloquence, the old aboriginal wound up the string by saying, ‘Now, I tell you, me no believe that; and since you make me mad, me no believe too that fish story!’

“That is the origin of the phrase, sir, and it is not only original but aboriginal.”


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