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.”