There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.
McConnell was discussing political setbacks when he quoted this “old Kentucky saying.” The meaning is plain—learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. But the saying conveys more than that. It’s colorful, dramatic and strongly suggests that failing to follow the maxim can be very painful. McConnell’s use of the old saying or proverb gives the issue an intensity that the blandly stated learning from your mistakes doesn’t quite communicate. People have been using proverbs to make their point for a long time. The biblical Book of Proverbs dates back about 3,000 years and contains proverbs that might be older still. Proverbs were so pervasive and noteworthy, that Aristotle made a systematic study of them. Despite their longevity as a genre, proverbs have been remarkably consistent in form. Each begins with an observation and then that observation is generalized to other situations. For it to stick, it has to be something that you could picture yourself having said and something that seems obviously true. Some of the old chestnuts make the point; “haste makes waste,” “ignorance is bliss,” and “to each his own.” These proverbs have enjoyed great staying power, but others come and go all the time. New on the scene is the Haitian proverb, “The fish that is being microwaved doesn’t fear the lightning.” (This might resonate if you feel a bit microwaved at your office.) Not mourned by anyone is the passing of a 19th century Scottish proverb, “fair in the cradle foul in the saddle.” The obscurity of its meaning is made more so by the fact that its 17th century antecedent was, “foul in the cradle fair in the saddle.” Baffling in any century! When a proverb survives, it does so because its appeal to common sense is so strong that it transcends the time and place of its origin while having a strong visual appeal. Thus, we all still use “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” even though none of us have much experience throwing out bathwater these days.
As Mitch McConnell ably demonstrated, politicians love to use proverbs. Proverbs make them sound down to earth and gives their opinions the aura of common sense. But they can take a comedic turn as well. In a span of 30 days, three Texas politicians, representing two parties told the same story in one city: “My grandma was just a simple country woman, but she made a lot of sense. She used to tell me, ‘as long as you keep on doin’ what your doin’, you’ll never get more that what you’ve got.’” Guess grandma got around back in the day, but she did make a lot of sense. Some politicians get downright grisly in their use of proverbs. Explaining why Republicans didn’t like to talk about the depression Harry Truman pointed out, “You don’t talk about rope in the house where somebody’s been hanged.” Proverbs can also keep a political career alive. When asked how he felt after his overwhelming defeat to Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson paraphrased Lincoln and said, “It hurts too much to laugh but I’m too old to cry.” Gracious in defeat, he ran again (and lost).
Proverbs are all around us all the time. They add richness and variety to our conversations and provide a shorthand means of making a point. If your friend is about to confront the boss a week before performance appraisals are due, you might mention that, “You don’t taunt the alligator until you’ve crossed the creek.” If your significant other isn’t a morning person you already know, “don’t poke the bear.” So go ahead and have some fun with proverbs. Work them into your speech. Remember, none other than Charles Dickens said, “the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile.” And watch out for that second kick of the mule! —Ebert