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May I have a word: Old saws get new teeth

Readers refresh truisms from a bygone time.

A bird in the hand is . . . an excellent way to get avian flu, quips one reader.Anton Hlushchenko/Adobe

You might suppose that proverbs are both eternal and universal. But consider such 14th-century English sayings as “Where cobwebs are plenty, kisses are scarce” and “It is not for everyone to catch a salmon” — or modern-day Swahili ones like “The rich man is a poor man indeed” and “A frog may kill an elephant.”

We may catch a glimmer of their meaning, but they don’t shed much light here and now. Even many familiar proverbs could do with a recharge. Take “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” — who wants a bird in their hand? Not me.


So last time, I invited you to update some old saws or come up with new ones. Jack Neiman, of Framingham, evidently agrees with me about that bird and proposed, “A bird in the hand may give one avian flu.”

“Don’t judge a book by . . .” Several readers were inspired to fill in that blank. Naomi Angoff Chedd, of Brookline, proposed “its number of likes”; Neil Osterweil, of Holliston, “its cover price”; and Bob Mangano, of Natick, “its Amazon customer reviews.”

Marian Glaser, of Auburndale, refreshed an oldie but goodie like this: “A booster today keeps the COVID away.” Naomi Angoff Chedd also had the health care sector in mind when she came up with “Laughter is the best medicine. $25 co-pay.”

Tech came in for some attention. Leonard Silver, of Arlington, wrote, “It’s always darkest before your smart home turns the lights on”; Naomi Angoff Chedd “What goes around comes around, streaming on Netflix”; and Scott Morrison, of Chelmsford, “You can lead a device to Wi-Fi, but you can’t make it link.”

Readers found finance, particularly its blockchain manifestations, to be a rich vein to mine. Leonard Silver coined “penny wise and bitcoin foolish,” Neil Osterweil proposed, “A fool and his money are soon investing in cryptocurrency,” and Bob Mangano warned, “Beware of geeks bearing crypto.” Bob also suggested, “What goes up must be inflation,” and Leonard offered, “A penny saved isn’t much after taxes and inflation.”


But my favorite updated saws, like their source material, sound as if they’re at least intended for the ages — or perhaps for an earlier time. For instance, Sue Dimick, of Marietta, Ga., shared this pronouncement: “Many men would have more than one wife, but virtually no women want more than one husband.” And Rosalie Kaufman, of Swampscott, decreed, “Give a man a fish and he eats for one day; teach a man to fish and you’ll never see him on weekends.”

Tom Price, of Nahant, explained he had “the glass-half-empty crowd” in mind when he flipped a well-known expression to get “It’s the early worm that gets caught by the bird.” And Jennifer Percy, of Salem, credited her husband, Stephen Silbert, with this saying: “There’s a first time for everything there’s a first time for.” Who could disagree?

Jack Neiman proposed “He who hesitates is bossed”; Mike Creegan, of Somersworth, N.H., “Anything that should go without saying usually bears repeating”; and Mary Ellen Kiddle, of Burlington, “Beauty is in the cost of the makeup” and “Two heads are better than none.”

But bragging rights this time go to John Hahesy, of Melrose, who, employing the slightest of sleight of hand, came up with “Never put off till tomorrow what can be fun today.” Hear, hear! And congrats, John.


As for the new challenge, reader Evelyn Carver, of Middleboro, recently pointed me toward an article in The Economist headlined, “The scourge of job-title inflation: The director of first impressions will see you now.”

The article ridicules fanciful and ephemeral titles like “lobby ambassador” for a receptionist, “sandwich artist” for the guy who assembles your lunch, and “chief innovability officer” for who knows what. “Metamates,” as Mark Zuckerberg decreed a year ago that his company’s employees should thenceforth be called, is invoked.

Back to Evelyn Carver, who suggested, “How about asking folks to either make up a highfalutin title for a job or report one they know of?”

Yes, how about it? Send your far-fetched job titles, together with the everyday names for those jobs, to me by noon on Friday, Feb. 3, at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com, and kindly include where you live.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor who lives in Cambridge.