Setiembre 2013

On popular sayings

I find the popular saying "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" pretty awkward. First, the word "do" appears twice in sequence, without the decency of at least introducing at least some alliteration. "In Denmark, do as the Danes do" would be way better, for example. Then, the saying doesn't rhyme, and everybody knows that popular sayings must rhyme. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do at home" improves a lot on it. But this brings the third problem: there is no rhythm to the saying. It's awkward to say. And moreover, the second part of the sentence has way many more syllables than the first. Imagine you are the first person to hear the saying. The speaker says "when in Rome", and you think "ah, this saying is going to be short and sweet, look how few syllables there are, only three", and then he says "do as the Romans do" and you go "whoa, that was 6 syllables. Stop a minute there. Don't recite the whole book at me".

Also, why the Romans especially? The Romans did lots of things we shouldn't really do anymore. For example, they held slaves. Imagine using this saying to justify slave ownership. "Why are you beating me up?" "We are doing as the Romans did. Now, what's your name?" "Kunta Kinte!" "Oooooh you cheeky person of color. You are lucky we aren't doing as the Greeks did."

I think that the Spanish version of this saying is way superior. "Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres". Which means "wherever you go, do whatever you see". See, it does rhyme. The first part is 4 syllables long and the second one is 5. And it doesn't involve Romans at all. Also in its favor, it uses an obsolete tense of the subjunctive mood, which is a plus in my book even though it makes it harder to translate into English, and if someone were inventing this saying today they would say "donde vayas, haz lo que veas", which would drive the actual inventor of the saying into remarking that using "vayas" assumes you are going somewhere, while "fueres" doesn't imply that you are going anywhere, but in case you ever go, do whatever you see (again, not assuming you are going to see anything). That guy is a smartass, but we already knew that because he decided to use the future subjunctive, which nobody does anymore, as I said before.

But at any rate, I like very much the Galician version, transmitted to me by my father, and so on since time immemorial, I assume. Or perhaps he made it up last year, but I'm not going to ask him and risk ruining the story. That version is "na terra dos lobos hai que ouvear como todos", which can be translated as "in the land of wolves you must howl like everyone else". It is an awesome saying because it has wolves in it, it rhymes, and even though it has two more syllables in the second part, it doesn't matter because you are so transfixed by the idea of howling like a wolf that you don't notice. And it creates a very graphical image in your mind about what it means, which is great in a popular saying. So I give it the full five stars and my seal of recommendation.

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