Noun, Verb, Proverb…

On a college language exam asking for the eight parts of speech, a befuddled student offered these three words before petering out.

I’m glad the poor soul gave up early. Who knows what might have come next, “adventure” instead of “adverb”?

Clearly the exam was something of an adventure as “pronoun” got conflated with “verb.” If only there could be special words that take the place of verbs, it’d save us so much work! Actually, some words already do, like the way I just used “do” as shorthand for “save us so much work” in the preceding sentence.

This is why lists one definition (early 20th cent.) of “proverb” as “a word that can substitute for a verb or verb phrase,” by analogy of “pronoun.” But no such listing appears in the venerable OED (Oxford English Dictionary), and “proverb” has never won a coveted place as a part of speech.

I would like to think the student knew something about this, though that’s sort of like believing you meant to be charitable after losing your wallet.

But wishful thinking is persistent, so maybe this student is just deep. Maybe this promising young person thinks the parts of speech are too freaking dull anyway. Who cares about basic grammar?! Let’s get some real truth in here dammit!

Not all proverbs are mundane, on the order of “money talks,” “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and “when the going gets tough…” A few common ones have a nice ring and say something useful too, like “better the devil that you know than the one you don’t” and “don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.”

My parents taught me these two: “if you want something done, ask a busy person” (true) and “cold hands, warm heart” (quirky). Worthy scientists have actually bothered to prove that cold hands are not a sign of inner warmth.

Then there’s the less common but more interesting maxims, like “a cat may look at a king,” an English metaphor asserting meager rights for social inferiors. The intriguingly vague “No friendship can survive the gift of gold” raises all kinds of possibilities since it doesn’t specify the giver or the recipient. Does it mean one’s gift of gold to a friend will spoil the friendship? Or a friendship can’t survive a sudden fortune for one of the friends? What if both friends hit the jackpot?

Of course, there is no love lost between women and certain adages. Sadly, they are not BFFs, because most proverbs are rooted in conservative, popular belief and reflect centuries of the systematic dishonoring of women’s lives.

So along with justifying bad male behavior (“boys will be boys”) we have, “a woman, a cat, and a chimney should never leave the house,” “a woman, a dog, and a walnut tree: the more you beat them, the better they be,” and, “never run after a woman or a streetcar; there’ll be another along in a few minutes.” And A Dictionary of American Proverbs reveals that the custom of older women not revealing their age, which is still going strong, is rooted not in vanity but in social shame: “A woman over thirty who will tell her exact age will tell anything.”

But it’s not all vile. A gem among the rubble: “An aversion to women is like an aversion to life.” Let’s scrap the “like.”

So yes. I would like to think this student launched a clever protest against the perceived banality of basic grammar. Unfortunately I know better. More than a few college students don’t know the parts of speech precisely because many people believe this type of knowledge is déclassé. Students don’t need to memorize silly facts, the thinking goes, because it’s more important to know how to find, use, and evaluate information.

Which means you don’t need to know basic principles of how your own language works (let alone anyone else’s), or that the U.S. passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, or that some historians believe that language about gender discrimination was included in the act initially as a joke in an effort to scuttle the bill. Because you know, you can just look all those things up online.

Except that you can’t if you don’t even know they exist. The idea that basic facts can be simply summoned at will represents a colossal misunderstanding of what young people need to become literate human beings. If we don’t learn fundamental things about our own language and culture early on, we will have a very hard time grasping much else. There really is no way around this.

With that in mind, here is something that should be proverbial: The students who list “proverb” as a part of speech will someday be writing our wills, handling our real-estate transactions, and making crucial health decisions for us. Or they might be teaching our kids or taking care of us when we’re too helpless to do it ourselves.

But we’re not helpless yet. There’s still time to make sure the young’uns will one day torment the next generation by reciting the lines of a certain dead poet, the one who wrote something about how a little learning is a dangerous thing.

The phoenix theater in Venice fighting a threatened closure a few years back: "from fire one (i.e. the phoenix) can rise again, but not from ignorance."

The Phoenix Theater in Venice, plagued by several fires throughout its history: “from fire one can rise again, but not from ignorance.”

9 thoughts on “Noun, Verb, Proverb…

  1. Thanks! I really enjoyed reading this. I agree that rote learning is falling by the wayside in our education system (at least here in New Zealand). At my son’s primary school they are taking an inquiry based approach. Focusing on as you say, finding, using and evaluating information. I do take you warning to heart that children/students can’t search the Internet for events/concepts they don’t know exist. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck starting with the knowledge needed to act as a citizen in a democratic society.

    • I think you are right about a necessary balance. Here in the U.S. there is simply not enough attention to knowledge, with the consequence that many students can’t really practice critical thinking because they simply don’t have a strong enough foundation. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post Ashleigh! Have you seen the film Alphaville by Jean Luc Goddard? There is a scene that I often think about in which the main character describes how the rulers of Alphaville have been taking words out of the dictionary and the citizens have forgotten what the words mean. Not just what they mean, but whole concepts cease to exist because the words are banned. It made a big impression on me when I saw it years ago. Love was one of the words, if I remember correctly. This seems to be an interesting parallel to what you are writing about here. Also, poet Elizabeth Bishop taught her students at Harvard in the 70s that the writer’s best tools are the dictionary and all manner of non-fiction books which describe the natural world. She did not like it when writers could not accurately and precisely describe the world around them. She would certainly lament what you are describing.

  3. Lovely post…thoroughly enjoyed reading it…but, I have a confession to make..though i love the English language and its proverbs and idioms..I never enjoyed studying the parts of speech, and probably would fail to name them like the student you mention…but, i like to think that it did not prevent me from loving the language, because I compensated by being a voracious reader. So, is it always necessary to learn the parts of speech or is it more important to learn to love the language? I guess..the middle path…

    • You make an excellent point. One can certainly learn to love language without learning the parts of speech, and of course little children can often easily learn multiple languages without knowing the least thing about grammar. But sadly, in many cultures in the U.S., most people are not voracious readers, don’t get the education they deserve, and do not sufficiently value education, especially learning about other languages and cultures. So because students haven’t learned to love language (which might get them interested in learning about grammar eventually) in any way, many are woefully underprepared by the time they finish high school.

      Thanks so much for reading and I’m really enjoying your photos!

      • You have made a point which is very close to my heart…you spoke about U.S…Its the same story in India…kids don’t read…of course with the harry potters of the world…the situation has improved somewhat in the urban middle and upper class…and the less I talk about the education system here, the better…it only encourages learning by rote…for instance, during my school days history was only a bunch of dates…which was not really very interesting for me …only after I completed my formal education…and started reading on my own, did I develop a love for the subject…

        Really glad that you enjoy my photos. Thanks a lot! 🙂

  4. I enjoyed your post and I feel your pain—one of my struggles is getting my art history students to bother to memorize a modest number of image identifications every semester. It has happened before that on exams, students will identify an artwork with a date that is centuries outside of the period covered in the course. Sometimes I have to repeat this proverb to myself as my teaching mantra: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!

    • Exactly! All we can do is our best. But I have found that there is always at least one or two and often a small group of students who really do take learning seriously, and that is gratifying. Great to have another teacher’s perspective. Thanks for reading!

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