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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Appendix 3. Proverb and Platitude

NO people, save perhaps the Spaniards, have a richer store of proverbial wisdom than the Americans, and surely none other makes more diligent and deliberate efforts to augment its riches. The American literature of “inspirational” platitude is enormous and almost unique. There are half a dozen authors, e. g., Dr. Orison Swett Marden and Dr. Frank Crane, who devote themselves almost exclusively, and to vast profit, to the composition of arresting and uplifting apothegms, and the fruits of their fancy are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards. It is rarely that one enters the office of an American business man without encountering at least one of these wall-cards. It may, on the one hand, show nothing save a succinct caution that time is money, say, “Do It Now,” or “This Is My Busy Day”; on the other hand, it may embody a long and complex sentiment, ornately set forth. The taste for such canned sagacity seems to have arisen in America at a very early day. Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” begun in 1732, remained a great success for twenty-five years, and the annual sales reached 10,000. It had many imitators, and founded an aphoristic style of writing which culminated in the essays of Emerson, often mere strings of sonorous certainties, defectively articulated. The “Proverbial Philosophy”of Martin Farquhar Tupper, dawning upon the American public in the early 40’s, was welcomed with enthusiasm; as Saintsbury says, success on this side of the Atlantic even exceeded its success on the other. But that was the last and perhaps the only importation of the sage and mellifluous in bulk. In late years the American production of such merchandise has grown so large that the balance of trade now flows in the other direction. Every traveling American must have observed the translations of the chief works of Dr. Marden that are on sale in all the countries of Europe, and with them the masterpieces of such other apostles of the New Thought as Ralph Waldo Trine and Elizabeth Towne. No other American books are half so well displayed.

The note of all such literature, and of the maxims that precipitate themselves from it, is optimism. They “inspire” by voicing and revoicing the New Thought doctrine that all things are possible to the man who thinks the right sort of thoughts—in the national phrase, to the right-thinker. This right-thinker is indistinguishable from the forward-looker, whose belief in the continuity and benignity of the evolutionary process takes on the virulence of a religious faith. Out of his confidence come the innumberable saws, axioms and geflügelte Wrote in the national arsenal, ranging from the “It won’t hurt none to try” of the great masses of the plain people to such exhilarating confections of the wall-card virtuosi as “The elevator to success is not running; take the stairs.” Naturally enough, a grotesque humor plays about this literature of hope; the folk, though it moves them, prefer it with a dash of salt. “Smile, damn you, smile!” is a typical specimen of this seasoned optimism. Many examples of it go back to the early part of the last century, for instance, “Don’t monkey with the buzz-saw,” “The silent hog eats the swill,” and “It will never get well if you pick it.” Others are patently modern, e. g., “The Lord is my shepherd; I should worry” and “Roll over; you’re on your back.” The national talent for extravagant and pungent humor is well displayed in many of these maxims. It would be difficult to match, in any other folk-literature, such examples as “I’d rather have them say ‘There he goes’ than ‘Here he lies,’” or “Don’t spit: remember the Johnstown flood,” or “Shoot it in the leg; your arm’s full,” or “Foolishness is next to happiness,” or “Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” or “It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was,” or “Cheer up; there ain’t no hell,” or “If you want to cure homesickness, go back home.” Many very popular phrases and proverbs are borrowings from above. “Few die and none resign” originated with Thomas Jefferson; Bret Harte, I believe, was the author of “No check-ee, no shirt-ee,” General W. T. Sherman is commonly credited with “War is hell,” and Mark Twain with “Life is one damn thing after another.” An elaborate and highly characteristic proverb of the uplifting variety—“So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell”—was first given currency by one of the engineers of the Panama Canal, a gentleman later retired, it would seem, for attempting to execute his own counsel. From humor the transition to cynicism is easy, and so many of the current sayings are at war with the optimism of the majority.“Kick him again; he’s down” is a depressing example. “What’s the use?” is another. The same spirit is visible in “Tell your troubles to a policeman,” “How’d you like to be the ice-man?” “Some she do and some say she don’t,” “Nobody loves a fat man,” “Ain’t it hell to be poor!”, “Have a heart!”, “I love my wife, but O you kid,” and “Would you for fifty cents?” The last originated in the ingenious mind of an advertisement writer and was immediately adopted. In the course of time it acquired a naughty significance, and helped to give a start to the amazing button craze of the first years of the century—a saturnalia of proverb and phrase making which finally aroused the guardians of the public morals and was put down by the Polizei.

The war, as we have seen in the chapter on Slang, produced very little new slang, but the doughboys showed all the national talent for manufacturing proverbs and proverbial expressions, chiefly derisive. “Our American visitors,” said an English writer at the end of the war, “are startling London with vivid phrases. Some of them are well known by now. ‘Hurry up and get born’ is one of them. Others are coming on, such as ‘Put crape on your nose; your brains are dead,’ and ‘Snow again, kid, I’ve lost your drift.’” Perhaps the favorite in the army was “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,” though “They say the first hundred years are the hardest” offered it active rivalry. No study of these military witticisms has been made. The whole subject of American proverbs, in fact, has been grossly neglected; there is not even a collection of them. The English publisher, Frank Palmer, prints an excellent series of little volumes presenting the favorite proverbs of all civilized races, including the Chinese and Japanese, but there is no American volume among them. Nor is there one in the similar series issued by the Appeal to Reason. Even such exhaustive collections as that of Robert Christy contain no American specimens—not even “Don’t monkey with the buzzsaw” or “Root, hog, or die.”