In defense of idiomatic language and contradictory proverbs

Regarding wisdom and reason: one sharpens the other. However it must be understood that aphorisms came first (because antifragile), just as emotions precede logic.

I used to think English is a bad language because it’s extremely idiomatic and therefore ambiguous. But I’ve come to realize this is actually a strength if you realize that all idioms contain hard-earned mental models that, in aggregate, become a sort of institutional wisdom. It’s more than just linguistic history- a great deal of our culture is tacitly stored away in our language. Sometimes the mental model is easy to extract, like in the word “danegeld”. Sometimes the opposite, like in the idiom “nursing a grudge”. Maybe you would sense that idea at some level, but you could go your whole life without putting it into words.

People complain that there are all kinds of contradictory proverbs out there, but what they fail to realize is that you have to apply them with a modicum of discernment. I think a good example is “correlation is not causation” because this proverb was created within our lifetimes and we’re intimately familiar with it. Strictly speaking it’s true, but that can’t be your response to every statistic from every survey. It’s like formulas from physics, you can’t just throw aphorisms around, you have to apply them at the correct times. The point of having these proverbs is to make it easier to describe situations where they’re appropriate, a la Sapir-Whorf. And you know, life is complicated, sometimes you should “look before you leap” and sometimes “he who hesitates is lost”.

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6 Responses to In defense of idiomatic language and contradictory proverbs

  1. Rime says:

    The wisdom in Dane-geld from Rudyard Kipling:

    A.D. 980-1016

    It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
    To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
    “We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
    Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

    And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
    And the people who ask it explain
    That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
    And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

    It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
    To puff and look important and to say: —
    “Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
    We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

    And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
    But we’ve proved it again and again,
    That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
    You never get rid of the Dane.

    It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
    For fear they should succumb and go astray;
    So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
    You will find it better policy to say: —

    “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
    No matter how trifling the cost;
    For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
    And the nation that pays it is lost!”

  2. Maybe a good sign of cleverness is being able to see the model behind the aphorism – allowing one to riff and create new ones?

    “look before you leap” + “he who hesitates is lost” -> the first one is talking about intellectual uncertainty and risk mitigation, the second one is talking about knowing what to do but having irrational fear

    So a combo might be:

    if in doubt, think deep
    but if it’s fear, then just leap

  3. “correlation is not causation” is meant to protect against the case of pareidolia – seeing faces in the clouds

    but what if there ARE faces in the clouds occasionally?

    for TrooThals, such an adage is not useful

    “correlation is not causation, but sometimes it sure smells a lot like it”

    might be a better one :)

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      Troo thals do not need to be convinced that symbolic logic is the coolest thing in the world. You just show it to them. Homo sapiens, on the other hand, require constant indoctrination: You are RATIONAL. You are SCIENTIFIC. You are LOGICAL. You think through the issues with your HIGHLY EVOLVED INTELLIGENCE.

  4. Pingback: A couple of things regarding dream interpretation | Aeoli Pera

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