- Hardcover: 312 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press (May 22, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300136021
- ISBN-13: 978-0300136029
- Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 1.2 x 9.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #578,674 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs Hardcover – May 22, 2012
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“Success is always preceded by preparation” is a proverb that aptly describes The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. The handy volume includes this and 1,400 additional popular English-language proverbs from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Entries are organized alphabetically by keyword and include the first datable appearance, history, origin, and meaning. Researchers used full-text databases to compile the volume, a first time for this type of project. Users will find it both educational and entertaining. --Jennifer Adams
"With its focus on proverbs that originated since 1900, this rich collection of 1,400 sayings drawn from newspapers, songs, and films is the first to use recently digitized sources to provide more accurate attributions. Alphabetized by keyword with information about each proverb's earliest datable appearance, origin, history, and meaning, the work is endlessly entertaining."—Library Journal
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It's a valuable reference book to have near my desk for when I need a pithy quote that readers may not have heard before.
Of course some readers may wonder why some are included and others not, or want more information about precursors.
Some probably can be antedated. Some possibly can be reattributed. The saying (with variations) attributed to Stalin in 1947 and later--one's man's death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic--may draw on a writing of Kurt Tucholsky from 1925 (and in at least three later printings), Französischer Witz. A French diplomat is represented as saying, "Der Krieg? Ich kann das nicht so schrecklich finden! Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!" (Tucholsky, Gesamtausgabe, Band 7, Text 136, page 375).
Some can be discussed further. For example, the rather flat and silly imperative 1991 formulation "Don't rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic" may well have been influenced by perhaps more elegant and imaginative wording in January 17, 1969 reports in both the Washington Post and NY Times quoting Liz Carpenter of the Johnson administration: "There are already a lot of new faces in the White House. All the new people want an office close to the President's. You should see them scramble; it's like fighting for a deck chair on the Titanic."
Page 101 includes "If anything can go wrong, it will" (and variants). Then follows a discussion of Murphy's Law. Considerably more could be said about that "law"; the current Wikipedia entry for Murphy's Law includes some additional information--at least in today's version.
In their introduction, the editors noted that many references omit the most common 20th century adages. They managed to update the list with aplomb and a hint of naughtiness. Some of the proverbs will make no sense to neo-Luddites ("It's not a bug, it's a feature"), just as others will offend the politically correct.
The book takes on the herculean task of tracing the origins of the proverbs. While most are probably correct, others don't quite hit the mark. For example, "if it exists, there is porn of it" was probably in use before 2008. I personally remember hearing "assume makes an ass out of you and me" in a skit from "The Benny Hill Show"--which might have appeared before 1975.
Fortunately, the editors recognize the limitations of their current effort. I am glad to know there is a website where readers can contribute information, perhaps for inclusion in a future edition. While there is room for minor improvement, "The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs" is definitely an essential reference for all writers and editors.
(This review first appeared in the online edition of the San Francisco Book Review.)