Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Preserving our roots: Sayings

“Don’t get in over your head” is a saying that a grandmother might proffer. (In Spanish the same warning comes via a saying that one should avoid getting into a shirt that is too big and complicated).
Such advice given this way indicates that sayings or proverbs can be a complicated subject. These ephemeral phrases, often of unknown authorship, contain much history and in a way preserve popular recollections and wisdom, which are passed on from one generation to another through a most powerful weapon: words.

One of the most accurate definitions of a saying – which fits “like a glove” (in Spanish: a ring that fits one’s finger) – is what Miguel de Cervantes achieves through his immortal character, Don Quixote: “Proverbs are short maxims, derived from the experience and speculation of our ancient elders.” No doubt he was right; consider the Hispanic saying that tell us that the devil knows more because he is old and experienced rather than because he is the devil.

But delving into the issue – and not “sugarcoating” the matter – the indisputable wisdom that is demonstrated by each saying is occasionally rejected by some. This should not come as a surprise, given that there are people who while they know what irritates them (in Spanish: “where the shoe irritates them,”), they love to pretend things are not there – they can “blot out the sun with a single finger.”

Sayings are full of truth, even if they might lack diplomacy; they have that popular flavor that scolds one in the manner of a gentleman wearing white gloves, mixing irony and humor. When more guests arrive than expected, a Hispanic might let loose with a saying about how a “grandmother gave birth” to many; and when luck is nowhere to be found, he might recall the saying about how when the poor wash their clothes, it inevitably rains. Or when a beautiful woman ignores a man, that elicits a disdainful remark about how “those fleas won’t be hopping in my bed.” In cases where one wishes to exclude an unbearable office colleague, one might resort to the saying about how he does nothing yet gets in the way – as in the “dog in the manger” story.

Sayings can also allow us to send a subliminal message to a pair of lovebirds who are about to start their married life: “Now you will find out what it is like to love God in a foreign country.” And if the marriage does not work out, then there is little to be done about it, so the saying is along these lines: What God does not bless, neither can the saints. And there is also one about mothers-in-law that invites them to stay away, even if they sweet as chocolate. With such advice, surely the couple will live happily ever after.

The truth within the sayings goes beyond idle talk. What better way to say that people only come around when things are good – those “fair weather friends” – than when there are tasty prickly pear fruits on the cactus, or when the cattle are fat, not when they are skinny.
So, each to their own, as communicated in the saying that a “shoemaker should attend to his shoes.” And beware that you are not sold “a pig in a poke,” or in the Spanish version, given a cat when you thought you were getting rabbit.

Photo by Juan Miret

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