Concerning proverbs

I love proverbs, and always have. I collect them, remember them, use them, modify them. Occasionally, I even try to invent one. By “proverb” here I mean a short phrase or sentence embodying an idea that applies to many situations and that is so familiar it is routinely used without attribution. Even in formal writing, I will say:

The race is not to the swift.


As the Preacher saith, “The race is not to the swift.”


“The race is not to the swift,” [Eccl 9:11].

That is, proverbs are treated as common intellectual property. Correspondingly, proverbs can be modified at discretion, without reference to the original maker: Churchill promised the English people nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” but they remembered it as “blood, sweat, and tears,” and so it is.

It seems to me — speaking here under the correction of those who have scientific knowledge — that our spoken and written language has become less proverbial (as well as more cliched) over time. That creates a problem for those who are heavy proverb-users: we are sometimes taken to be inventing material we mean to be merely repeating or referring to.

Just now, for example, I was on the phone with a reporter writing a story about Colombia’s decision to include the value of peasant coca-farming in its national income accounts. The reporter, quite reasonably, asked whether such information could be gathered accurately. I said, roughly, “Of course it can’t, but a reasonable guess is better than treating the value as zero. You do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” The reporter then asked me to repeat the last phrase, evidently intending to quote it and attribute it to me; I had to explain that I was quoting rather than inventing. (A quick Google finds an attribution to TR, and the canonical version ends “what you’ve got,” which seems to me less elegant; I’m sticking with my version.)

Has anyone else had a similar experience, or is this just a measure of how weird I am?

[Some years ago David Hsia and I assembled a commonplace-book we called “Out of Context.” I’ve uploaded it, and the link is below. Contributions welcome.]

Out of Context

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: