Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts by Emily Smart

I heard myself saying to someone the other day, ‘I’m not trying to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, but…’ or some such thing, and I suddenly thought, ‘What the bloody hell am I talking about?’ Obviously, I get the gist of the saying, which is to refrain from telling someone who already knows what they’re doing, how to do something. But where on earth does this well-known maxim come from? Is it that old people have no teeth and therefore have to suck out the contents of an egg to eat them? In which case does the phrase pre-date cutlery and dentures? I consulted the World Wide Web. I then wished I hadn’t bothered. Good grief, some people have far too much time on their hands. I have encountered far too many explanations of the term, read far too many arguments about the saying and then continued to find comments from would-be lexicologists slagging each other off for pedantry and word origin snobbery. The explanation I am going with (without much conviction I might add), is provided by Wikipedia:

‘Egg sucking removed the egg contents while preserving the shell intact. Two small holes were made on the ends of the egg, and the contents sucked out. The shell could then be painted or otherwise used for decorative purposes without it becoming rotten and smelling bad.’

This still doesn’t explain where the grandmother comes into it, but I chose to ignore the chap suggesting that there was some correlation between senior citizens and fellatio – enough already!

Have you noticed how these everyday sayings, or proverbs to give them their correct title, creep into our daily dialogue? Everyone generally understands what you’re talking about, but the actual saying often doesn’t make any sense. Take, for example, the fact that apparently people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. It seems fairly straightforward in its meaning; however, do you know anyone who lives in a greenhouse? And what on earth is that maxim a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush about? I realised I didn’t even understand what this meant from a metaphorical viewpoint, never mind the literal meaning. According to,

‘It’s better to have a lesser but certain advantage than the possibility of a greater one that may come to nothing…..This proverb refers back to mediaeval (try to get that word right without spell check), falconry where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey).’

And then there’s the leopard changing his spots. Well he can’t can he? Unless he buys a new coat, and I don’t believe there are many department stores in sub-Saharan Africa. One has  to look to the Bible for the source of this saying:

‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.’ Jeremiah 13:23

Then there are the proverbs that are probably seen these days as politically incorrect. A rather over-used one in my household is, ‘It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.’ It doesn’t quite carry the same punch if you change it to ‘It ain’t over ‘til the morbidly obese person sings.’

Proverbs, sayings and their origins are fascinating. There are hundreds of websites and books on the subject, many debating the true origins of sayings, some asking how we seem to know and understand them intuitively.  I don’t recall having any formal teaching on the subject, but I can reel off at least 10, from rolling stones not gathering moss, to stitches in time saving nine. However, there is one great source of many of our everyday sayings that has been tapped continuously ever since the death of its creator in 1616.  His sayings will no doubt continue to be dropped into conversations throughout the world for hundreds of years to come. Step up none other than William Shakespeare Esquire, a  consummate wordsmith and the creator of some of the most beautiful and enduring sayings in the English language:

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow.’

‘The world’s mine oyster.’

‘All that glisters is not gold.’

‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’

‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!’

NB the word ‘horse’ is often replaced by the word ‘beer’ on most Friday nights at my gaff. I don’t suppose the Bard would mind me changing things a little, as long as all’s well that ends well. Oh that’s bad, really bad; sorry WS.

4 Comments on “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts by Emily Smart

  1. Apparently the saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” is also a misquote. When asked by a wealthy young man how to get to heaven the bearded one apparently said “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” which although brilliantly working class lacks the poetic absurdity of the translation of rope to camel. Here’s how it happened (from Wikipedia)…

    “An alternative linguistic explanation is taken from George M Lamsa’s Syriac-Aramaic Peshitta translation2 which has the word ‘rope’ in the main text but a footnote on Matthew 19:24 which states that the Aramaic word gamla means rope and camel, possibly because the ropes were made from camel hair. ”


    “In Aramaic, the word for “camel” (גמלא) is spelled identically to the word for “rope” (גמלא), suggesting that the correct phrase was “rope through the eye of a needle,” making the hyperbole more symmetrical.”

    I thought you might be interested!

  2. We frequently use the term “touching base”. You know “I am going to touch base with…”. But Susan hates it and has banned its use. Now we are being fined 50 cents each time we say it.

    When you’re being fined you realise how frequently you say it!

  3. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Appreciate it

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