PROVERBS, SAYINGS, FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS AND CLICHÉS
The place of proverbs, sayings and familiar quotations with respect to set expressions is a controversial issue. A proverb is a short familiar epigrammatic saying expressing popular wisdom, a truth or a moral lesson in a concise and imaginative way. Proverbs have much in common with set expressions, because their lexical components are also constant, their meaning is traditional and mostly figurative, and they are introduced into speech ready-made. That is why some scholars following V.V. Vinogradov think proverbs must be studied together with phraseological units. Others like J. Casares and N.N. Amosova think that unless they regularly form parts of other sentences it is erroneous to include them into the system of language, because they are independent units of communication. N.N. Amosova even thinks that there is no more reason to consider them as part of phraseology than, for instance, riddles and children’s counts. This standpoint is hardly acceptable especially if we do not agree with the narrow limits of phraseology offered by this author. Riddles and counts are not as a rule included into utterances in the process of communication, whereas proverbs are. Whether they are included into an utterance as independent sentences or as part of sentences is immaterial. If we follow that line of reasoning, we shall have to exclude all interjections such as Hang it (all)! because they are also syntactically independent. As to the argument that in many proverbs the meaning of component parts does not show any specific changes when compared to the meaning of the same words in free combinations, it must be pointed out that in this respect they do not differ from very many set expressions, especially those which are emotionally neutral.
Another reason why proverbs must be taken into consideration together with set expressions is that they often form the basis of set expressions. E. g. the last straw breaks the camel’s back : : the last straw; a drowning man will clutch at a straw : : clutch at a straw; it is useless to lock the stable door when the steed is stolen : : lock the stable door ‘to take precautions when the accident they are meant to prevent has already happened’.
Both set expressions and proverbs are sometimes split and changed for humorous purposes, as in the following quotation where the proverb All is not gold that glitters combines with an allusion to the set expression golden age, e . g . It will be an age not perhaps of gold, but at least of glitter. Compare also the following, somewhat daring compliment meant to shock the sense of bourgeois propriety: But I laughed and said, “Don’t you worry, Professor, I'm not pulling her ladyship’s leg. I wouldn’t do such a thing. I have too much respect for that charming limb.” (Cary) Sometimes the speaker notices the lack of logic in a set expression and checks himself, as in the following: Holy terror, she is — least not so holy, I suppose, but a terror all right (Rattigan).
Taking a familiar group of words: A living dog is better than a dead lion (from the Bible) and turning it around, a fellow critic once said that Hazlitt was unable to appreciate a writer till he was dead — that Hazlitt thought a dead ass better than a living lion. A. Huxley is very fond of stylistic, mostly grotesque, effects achieved in this way. So, for example, paraphrasing the set expression marry into money he says about one of his characters, who prided herself on her conversation, that she had married into conversation.
Lexicology does not deal more fully with the peculiarities of proverbs: created in folklore, they are studied by folklorists, but in treating units introduced into the act of communication ready-made we cannot avoid touching upon them too.
As to familiar quotations, they are different from proverbs in their origin. They come from literature but by and by they become part and parcel of the language, so that many people using them do not even know that they are quoting, and very few could acccurately name the play or passage on which they are drawing even when they are aware of using a quotation from W. Shakespeare.
The Shakespearian quotations have become and remain extremely numerous — they have contributed enormously to the store of the language. Some of the most often used are: I know a trick worth two of that; A man more sinned against than sinning ("King Lear"); Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown ("Henry IV"). Very many come from “Hamlet", for example: Frailty, thy name is woman’, Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice’, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark; Brevity is the soul of wit; The rest is silence; Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, I Than are dreamt of in your philosophy; It out-herods Herod; For to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
Excepting only W. Shakespeare, no poet has given more of his lines than A. Pope to the common vocabulary of the English-speaking world. The following are only a few of the best known quotations: A little learning is a dangerous thing; To err is human; To forgive, divine; For fools rush in where angels fear to tread; At every word a reputation dies; Who shall decide when doctors disagree?
Quotations from classical sources were once a recognised feature of
public speech: de te fabula narratur (Horace) ‘the story is about you’; ternpora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis ‘times change, and we change with them’; timeo Danaoset dona ferentes (Virgil) ‘I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts’. Now they are even regarded as bad form, because they are unintelligible to those without a classical education. So, when a speaker ventures a quotation of that kind he hastens to translate it. A number of classical tags nevertheless survive in educated speech in many countries, in Russian no less than in English. There are the well-known phrases, such as ad hoc ‘for this special reason’; bona fide ‘in good faith’; cum grano salts ‘with a grain of salt’; mutatis mutandis ‘with necessary changes’; tabula rasa ‘a blank tablet’ and others of the same kind. As long as they keep their Latin form they do not belong to English vocabulary. Many of them, however, show various degrees of assimilation, e.g. viva voce ['vaiva ‘vousi] ‘oral examination’, which may be used as an adjective, an adverb and a verb. Viva voce examination is colloquially shortened into viva (noun and verb).
Some quotations are so often used that they come to be considered clichés. The term comes from the printing trade. The cliché (the word is French) is a metal block used for printing pictures and turning them out in great numbers. The term is used to denote such phrases as have become hackneyed and stale. Being constantly and mechanically repeated they have lost their original expressiveness and so are better avoided. H.W. Fowler in a burst of eloquence in denouncing them even exclaims: “How many a time has Galileo longed to recant his recantation, as e pur si muove was once more applied or misapplied!"1 Opinions may vary on what is tolerable and what sounds an offence to most of the listeners or readers, as everyone may have his own likes and dislikes. The following are perhaps the most generally recognised: the acid test, ample opportunities, astronomical figures, the arms of Morpheus, to break the ice, consigned to oblivion, the irony of fate, to sleep the sleep of the just, stand shoulder to shoulder, swan song, toe the line, tender mercies, etc. Empty and worn-out but pompous phrases often become mere verbiage used as a poor compensation for a lack of thought or precision. Here are some phrases occurring in passages of literary criticism and justly branded as clichés: to blaze a trail, consummate art, consummate skill, heights of tragedy, lofty flight of imagination. The so-called journalese has its own set of overworked phrases: to usher in a new age, to prove a boon to mankind, to pave the way to a bright new world, to spell the doom of civilisation, etc.
In giving this review of English set expressions we have paid special attention to the fact that the subject is a highly complex one and that it has been treated by different scholars in very different ways. Each approach and each classification have their advantages and their drawbacks. The choice one makes depends on the particular problem one has in view, and even so there remains much to be studied in the future.
1E pur si muove (It) ‘yet it does move’ — the words attributed to Galileo Galilei. He is believed to have said them after being forced to recant his doctrine that the Earth moves round the Sun.