Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Proverbially speaking

A coffee shop has recently opened up next door to the pub I work in. This is great news because now when someone asks for a coffee, I can give them my best withering look that says "Really? You want to pay a pound for a cup of Nescafe instant in a stained mug when there is a coffee shop right next door serving the best flat white north of Haringey?" I have to communicate this sentiment using eyebrows only. If I said it out loud I would probably be sacked. 

The only downside of this coffee shop is that the owner insists on littering the pavement with blackboards bearing soul-destroyingly cheerful messages of hope, love and encouragement to buy coffee. "Think Big!" an A-board yells at me as I autopilot my hungover body back to the bar I left only eight hours previously to clear up the mess that I left only eight hours previously. As I fumble for the key to open another day's drudgery my peripheral vision is assaulted with meaningless chirpy aphorisms: "Only YOU control your life", "A journey of a thousand miles begins with just a single coffee", "Happiness is in YOUR hands". You get the idea. There are new ones every day, including the comically ill-situated one pictured.

*Not to be taken literally
 The grammatical and semantic oddness of "The best things in life are Coffee" deserves a blog-length deconstruction all of its own. Maybe I'll come back to it. 

But it has been a while since I brought up that old favourite of this blog: Donald E. Brown's list of Human Universals. This is the anthropologist's list of things that are either (in the weak interpretation) common in every human culture or (in the strong interpretation) universal to every human being. It's a fascinating read that I like to revisit whenever I need reminding that humans share a lot more in common than is commonly appreciated. Anyhow, way down the end of the list, 28th on the additions since 1989 addendum, is: "Proverbs and sayings in mutually contradictory forms" (An example from English would be: "too many cooks spoil the broth" and "many hands make light work").

What do I conclude from this? Not much and much. There is much that is contradictory in human behaviour. I suppose our proverbs would reflect that. I read this Anglo-Saxon one the other day and it seems as relevant today as when anonymously penned (or quilled or carved or whatever they did in those days) more than a millennium ago:

Man deþ swá hé byþ þonne hé mót swá hé wile 

Man does as he is when he does as he wishes

Or, as philologist Tom Shippey translates more coloquially: "You show what you are like when you can do what you like." It works on many levels. I like to read it as a moral lesson showing the worthlessness of the idle rich, but also as a reminder to myself to spend my free time productively. I have a day off today. Maybe I'll go for a coffee.  


1 comment:

  1. Have a flat white, but don't grow a beard. Wash the mugs with bleach to remove stains.