Dueling Proverbs

By Welsch, Roger L. | Natural History, April 1992 | Go to article overview

Dueling Proverbs


Welsch, Roger L., Natural History


My father is German, and he does some German things, and I can say so, because I'm a German. So don't send me letters about how the Germans invented cream-filled pastries, designed the first autobahn, and used to have great singing contests. I know all that. Being German, my father speaks in proverbs. To him, proverbs are little nuggets of traditional wisdom that speak to every issue and question. "Why can't I have a car of my own?" I would ask, and Dad would answer, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

"Huh?" I would say.

Or maybe he would tell me to mow the lawn and I would explain that I couldn't because...because...because I had to study for a woodworking shop exam the next day. He would say, "Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel." I would say, "Huh?" And he would say, "Mow the lawn." And I would think, "Germans!"

Now that I think of it, that was the reasonable side of Dad. If I took a stand and clearly had logic, justice, and maybe Mom on my side, he would, without a pause, say something like, "Augenflaugen bracht magen Platz."

"What does that mean, Dad?" I'd ask, even though I knew better.

"That means, 'Don't slander your neighbor until you have walked six miles in his moccasins.' "

"After that it's okay to slander him?" I asked, realizing at once that I would have done better by asking him which of those words was German for "moccasins."

"Flanzen bogen distel sichen Universitaet--Honor thy father or lose driving privileges until you graduate from college," he explained.

When I did go off to college, one of the first things I did was take a course in German to see if Dad was really speaking German. As it turned out, he was, sort of. But the real advantage of what eventually became my graduate degree in German was that I came to understand his proverbs and learned enough more, thanks to his tuition payments, to argue effectively with him, using an arsenal of my own proverbs.

In graduate folklore school at Indiana University I learned that in many cultures, proverbs are correctly considered to be collective wisdom and can be introduced in court as common law. Never mind that there are contradictory proverbs: contradictory legal opinions clash in American courts every day.

My old man hadn't been using conventional debate and logic, perhaps, but he was exercising some skills that constitute a legitimate alternative for many peoples of the world. Okay, two can play that game. Armed with two degrees, two published books, and a few more years of experience, I returned home, ready to deal with Dad. …

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