Proverbs are an important part of any language. They are words of wisdom that guide people in different circumstances. That is why when a language goes into extinction, one of the vital ements that dies with it is the people’s legacy of proverbs. Unfortunately, this is the threat that many Nigerian languages face now, while many of us watch like unrepentant prodigal sons.
English also boasts (not boasts of) many proverbs, which are like an asset to every user of the language. Like other figurative devices, the wise sayings are not to be overused, though. Yet, there are situations they are suitable, especially in speeches and informal conversations. I believe you know many of such proverbs. While I hope to present a list at the end of the lesson, the focus is to call your attention to a few ones that have been corrupted.
We should thank our stars that there is no EFCC for grammar and proverbs-related offences. If there were, many people would have been jailed for saying:
Birds of the same feathers flock together.
Cut your coat according to your size.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
You cannot have your beans and eat your cake.
These are some of the proverbs that have been twisted out of their original shapes. How often have you used them as listed above? Many of us are, indeed, guilty as charged. Just imagine an EFCC for language-related matters!
Same or like feathers?
The proverb involved here is a popular one. It captures the normal situation in which people of the same or like/similar characters and interests naturally relate. They are often found in company with one another, whether in the political arena, business or other areas of life. Often, too, it is used when such persons are doing negative things. But what is the correct expression? Some say, Birds of the same feathers flock together. Others argue that no two birds can have the same feathers. So, they say, Birds of like feathers flock together. The correct expression, however, is, Birds of a feather flock together.
I learnt that Popo and Jude have no respect for women. No wonder, they are friends. After all, birds of the same feathers flock together. (Wrong)
I learnt that Popo and Jude have no respect for women. No wonder, they are friends. After all, birds of like feathers flock together. (Wrong)
I learnt that Popo and Jude have no respect for women. No wonder, they are friends. After all, birds of a feather flock together. (Correct)
Cut your coat – according to your what?
I am sure the answer that many will give is: Cut your coat according to your size! Yes, it is a very popular proverb. The thinking, I guess, is that it is normal to instruct one’s tailor to make the dress in a way that fits one’s size. And what is the job of a tailor if not to sew the dress according to one’s height and body mass? I remember a highlife/juju song that used to be popular especially in the South-West: Aaa, eyin elegbe mi/ Cut your coat, according to your size… In the song, the artiste is just calling on people to remain modest and live within their means. Unfortunately, he is also teaching them bad English. The reason is that the correct statement is, Cut your coat according to your cloth.”
Of course, apart from the fact that this is exactly the way the proverb is said, it also makes sense: the size of your fabric normally informs the size and pattern of the dress. Don’t remind me that the tailor can help you to patch it or that he can deliberately support it with other materials. That will sound like the way popular Yoruba comedian, Baba Suwe, used to twist proverbs when he was just emerging on the scene. Anyway, it is good to remember that the actor, who had been sick for some time, is recuperating now.
What is good for the goose ….
Perhaps the proverb here – also a popular one – got bruised because people want it to sound as poetic or musical as possible. So, they erroneously say, What is good for the goose is good for the gander. The actual expression is, What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is a proverb used to argue that people, institutions etc. should be treated equally in particular circumstances:
A lot of people are insisting that the pastor must face justice over the rape allegation because they believe that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. (Wrong)
A lot of people are insisting that the pastor must face justice over the rape allegation because they believe that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (Correct)
What about this other one: You cannot have your cake and eat your beans? Yes now! Once you process your beans into cake, you don’t have the beans again. The beans are gone once you have baked and eaten your cake! As sweet as the analysis seems, please note that the expression remains bastardised. The right option is, You cannot have your cake and eat it. This means that you cannot have two desirable but contradictory options. In other words, you just have to choose one!
The man had to resign his appointment with the bank when his business began to demand more attention. He knew he could not have his beans and eat his cake. (Wrong).
The man had to resign his appointment with the bank when his business began to demand more attention. He knew he could not have his cake and eat it. (Correct)