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It’s a quotation! It’s a proverb! It’s a phrase!

Superman himself would often have problems deciding whether a saying is a quotation, a proverb, or a phrase. The lines are blurred: a proverb can be defined as ‘a short, well-known pithy saying’, but a quotation is ‘a group of words repeated by someone other than the original author’ and in any case a phrase is ‘a small group of words standing together’. Who decides when the quotation becomes a proverb or just a phrase? But whatever you call them, all these sets of words are undoubtedly memorable and can help to convey complex ideas in a succinct and colourful way.

Many of the most familiar phrases in our language began life in the Bible, but have subtly changed over the years to a snappier form. In 1611 the translators of the King James Bible wrote ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’ Today common use has answered the question with ‘a leopard can’t change his spots’. In fact there seems to be a preference in biblical phrases against change – ‘the law of the Medes and the Persians, which altereth not’ is also now proverbial.

Variety and pastures new: the very spice of life…

Secular quotations, on the other hand, are often more adventurous, though equally open to ‘improvement’. In 1785, the poet William Cowper wrote:

Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.

Today we just refer to the proverb ‘variety is the spice of life’ to encourage acceptance of new and exciting experiences.

Sometimes it is not merely abbreviation, and the poet’s whole image is altered. John Milton wrote of ‘fresh woods and pastures new’, but there is always a great attraction in alliteration, and three hundred years later it is just as common to hear references to ‘fresh fields and pastures new’.

The Red Queen fights with tooth and claw

In biology, the Red Queen hypothesis (that evolution is driven by the constant race between predator and prey) is based on an idea from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, where the Red Queen tells Alice ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’.

A different aspect of competition is reflected in Tennyson’s line ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, while the image of the action of a bird of prey from Shakespeare’s Macbeth has also entered the language:

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What! all my pretty chickens and their dam,
At one fell swoop?

The plot thickens: Big Brother is watching you

Politicians today may play (or use) the –– card without realizing the debt they owe to Lord Randolph Churchill, who said of the Irish situation in 1886: ‘I decided some time ago that if the G.O.M. went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play’. But while they at least are probably still aware of the literary origins of Big Brother, it seems likely that many fans of the TV programme know nothing of Orwell and ‘big brother is watching you’. And few politicians may know that the plot thickens began life as a line from a play by a seventeenth century Duke of Buckingham.

Some phrases have a long history or have travelled a long way. To throw someone to the lions goes back to the Roman writer Tertullian, although even in the third century ad he was simply reporting ‘If the Tiber rises, if the Nile does not rise, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, straightway the cry is “The Christians to the lions!”’. In an equally dangerous situation Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights first said open sesame, though today it is used to mean unrestricted access in much tamer circumstances.

Our own English proverb It is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back has given us the final straw, perhaps a good place to finish.

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