Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Proverbial Proverb — Words(s) of Wisdom

My father, a high school teacher, was a master of the proverb – those short, pithy sayings that express a traditionally held belief, such as “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apple_clipartIn fact, his lectures were so liberally sprinkled with these phrases that a few of his students made a list over the course of a year. The variety was endless, with the total climbing into the hundreds. Although my Dad passed away eight years ago, every time I hear myself spouting one of these time-tested phrases, it brings him to mind.

After being passed down from generation to generation, proverbs become a familiar part of the general phraseology of a culture, and they reflect that society’s values.  For example, the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” originated in Africa, where a strong sense of community is still a common cultural characteristic and people in addition to a child’s parents take responsibility for developing his or her moral character. In North America, we use the proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” because we believe in a strong work ethic.

Here are a few more of my favourites; feel free to share some of yours with me!

  1. Many a true word is spoken in jest.
  2. Every cloud has a silver lining. (We North Americans are optimistic.)
  3. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (A
    proverb from the U.S., a culture of risk-takers)
  4. Brevity is the soul of wit. 

I’ll end now so that you’ll find me witty!


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Talking Temperance — Word(s) of Wisdom

While reading recently, I came across the word, temperance, and was startled to find it used in a rather ordinary sentence.

In my mind, temperance is associated with the U.S. anti-alcohol movement that began in the 1830s. Many people believed that liquor was at the root of societal ills, and led by groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, vocally protested its availability. These efforts led to passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. The amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” and ushered in its namesake Beer1Prohibition Era, complete with bootleggers, bathtub gin and speakeasies. For me, the word conjures images of women in Victorian-era dress marching and carrying signs denouncing alcohol.

Interestingly, I discovered that the word, temperance, itself is defined as “moderation or self restraint, especially in regard to eating and drinking.” Temperate, the adjective form of the word, means “avoiding excess or self-restrained; moderate.” Not abstinence, but moderation; no wonder I was confused.

Temperance is a good word for us in 21st North America, but we should apply it to food, rather than to drink. With obesity reaching epidemic proportions and restaurants dedicated to super-sized portions, perhaps we can give the word new meaning for our times.

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The Name Game

“What’s in a Name?”  the playwright, William Shakespeare, famously asked in Romeo and Juliet. Quite a bit, says Jessica Taylor, a lecturer in linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Linguistic anthropology is the comparative study of the ways language shapes social life, and Taylor offered some insights into names during a lesson at last week’s SPUR Young Scholars Day at the university.

Names, she said, not only identify individuals, but they point to social meanings that may vary according to culture. In Italy, for example, Romeo is a serious name that translates to Pilgrim to Rome.  To English speakers, however, the name often connotes a lover, a colloquial meaning based on the hero in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Different versions of a name can also indicate how close a relationship two people have. The boss may call his employee James; his best friend may call him by his nickname, Jim; while his mother may be one of the few people who calls him Jimmy, his childhood nickname.

These linguistic layers of meaning  certainly cast a different light on the rest of the quote from Romeo and Juliet:  “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


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Play Ball! — Word(s) of Wisdom

The baseball season officially opened this week in cities across North America – another sure sign of spring.

Baseball is a sport with a rich history and culture, as well as a loyal fan base. Evidence of its popularity can be seen in the way some of its expressions have leaked into the English language as jargon, taking on new meanings. Some of them have become so ingrained, speakers don’t even think about their baseball origins.

Take, for example, the phrase Hit One Out of the Park. In baseball, it refers to a batter who hits a homerun and scores for his team. In the business world, it refers to someone who has turned a task or a project into a big success.

Or consider the term Batting 1,000. In baseball, it refers to someone who has a hit every time he bats, which is impossibility throughout a long season. In business, however, the phrase describes someone who is on target or doing an excellent job on a project.

Do you use any baseball jargon in your everyday conversation? Or is this whole essay too Inside Baseball (specialized) for you?

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I Swear — Word(s) of Wisdom

It’s April Fool’s Day, and CBC radio’s morning program raised the ire of many listeners with a (false) story about a petition to prohibit cursing in a local park. Scores of readers tweeted their outrage before the joke was revealed, citing their belief in free speech in public places.

I, too, strongly believe in free speech, but the current fashion for casual cursing disturbs me. I am no saint – I spent a few years working for the Navy and did, indeed, learn to curse like a sailor – but I maintain that conversation should be more than a string of F#*! and S*#!  strung together.

Call me a prude, but there’s nothing enjoyable about walking to the subway behind someone telling a friend how much the bleeping bleep bleeped him off. It just sounds uncouth and disgusting.

Curses lose their power if they are overused, so it’s time to substitute other exclamatory words and phrases for modern profanity. Let’s deprogram ourselves, broaden our vocabularies and use some creativity in heated moments.

Why not turn to Shakespeare for a lesson or two? Here are a few of his choice insults that will not only sound much classier than your average expletive, but will impress your friends and neighbours with their uniqueness:

  • “Sweep on, you fat and greasy citizens.” (As You Like It)
  • “Scurvy, old, filthy, scurry lord.” (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • “Out, you mad headed ape.” (Henry IV, Part I)
  • “Base dunghill villain.”(Henry IV, Part II)
  • “How foul and loathsome is thine image.” (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • “Poisonous bunch backed toad.” (Richard III)

For a larger selection, visit


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