The English word say means to utter or speak. It devolves from the Old Norse word saga, which is akin to the word say.
A saying is something that is said; it expresses a complete idea. But to qualify as a saying, what's said can't be just any nonsense dribbled from the mouth; it must something that expresses an idea and makes a point, such as a proverb, apothegm, maxim, adage, saw, epigram, or aphorism, bon mot, or any one of a number of other kinds of expression. And of course, to qualify as a saying, what's said doesn't have to literally be spoken aloud; it can be written on paper, carved in stone, posted on a billboard, displayed on a TV, spray painted on a wall of graffiti...you get the point.
Sayings are specific to a particular country, culture, and language. Some are specific to a subculture, social group, or industry. For instance, most sayings that arise in France or Germany appear in the publications and speech of Frenchmen or Germans, not in those of Libya or Cape Town. The bulk of sayings that arise among union members or scientists appear in union meetings and scientific journals and lectures, not in baking or sewing circles.
Sayings run the gamut of emotion from dead serious to hilarious, from dead pan to spiritual. They rouse and stir or leave you flat.
We live in a sea of sayings; they're all around us. Virtually every country, culture, and language has them, thousands of them. Sometimes we tend to tune them out because they're ubiquitous and in constant use by speakers, writers, on signs, and in media. Yet, ironically, it's partly because we tend to tune them out that they exert so potent an impact. Sayings are important in a negative sense because what they have to say is drummed into us when we're looking the other way, a time when we're least able to defend ourselves by thinking critically about what a saying proposes or observes.
In a positive sense, sayings are important partly because what they have to say is often worth knowing, following, or guarding against. Here, too, there is irony. The time we hear a saying is sometimes precisely the time when we should be (but aren't) listening, learning, and analyzing.
For whatever reasons, sayings are important. Don't underrate them.
What there is to say about a saying
Of course, the idea expressed by a saying is the most important thing there is to say about it; the idea it puts forward is the reason for its existence, the rationale for why it was devised in the first place, and the purpose for its use whenever it's invoked.
For many sayings it's also important to discuss how the saying employs language to express its ideathat is, the way it uses words and phrases. Twists on words, figures of speech such as metaphors or similes, allusions, exaggeration, etc.these and many other linguistic devices can add to or alter meanings considerably.
Thus, besides a saying's meaning, also worthy of discussion is its philology.
Philology is the study of literary texts and written records; it's the establishment of the authenticity of words and their original form and the determination of their meaning.
The science and art of philology includes the study of cultural, political, social and geographical origins of languages or words. It encompasses the history of changes in the meaning of languages or words and the manner of their expression. It's the study of language and word development and the reasons for their creation or change.
From a practical perspective, philology is the study and analysis of how languages or words develop. It's the study of literature and of other disciplines relevant to literature and language as they are used in literature. It's also linguistics, especially historical and comparative linguistics, including human speech, especially speech as a vehicle of literature. And from the perspective of another discipline, it's a field of history that sheds light on cultural history.
The Muse Of Language Arts and The Muse Of Literature take into account all these aspects of a saying when they present it.
kinds of sayings
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So, what's a saying?
Classified by a certain ETAF staff member (who shall remain anonymous), there are four kinds of sayings (temporally speaking):
As The Muse Of Language Arts uses the term here, the word saying is a catchall. Actually, for the purposes of this feature The Muse has chosen to include many different kinds of expressions under the rubric saying. The Muse considers these kinds of expressions to be sayings:
You may be able to think of other kinds of sayings, but The Muse is exhausted and will stop here.
A rose by any other name
According to Gertrude Stein, a rose is a rose is a rose.
It turns out that Gertrude's poetic saying about roses applies to other kinds of sayings, as well. That's because many sayings appear in more than one form.
How can that happen?
Different versions of the same saying may develop for a multiplicity of reasons. Sometimes alternate dialects or languages employ different turns of phrase to express the same or a similar idea. Sometimes a saying may be framed with alternate but linguistically equivalent pronouns, such as by substituting he for she; or in other cases, alternative grammatical structures may express equivalent ideas.
The Muse could cite many additional reasons for how a given saying can masquerade under different phrasings, but that's a subject for another day. Here it's unnecessary to go into how different versions arise. No matter how such alternative sayings exist for a given saying, so long as they convey the same basic ideaso long as equivalent sayings convey the same clever thought twist and make the same assertionsThe Muse treats them all as virtually equivalent, as if they are essentially the same saying; it doesn't matter if different versions express themselves in slightly different ways.
Consider the saying, You took the words right out of my mouth. Next consider the saying, She took the words right out of my mouth. Is there any fundamental difference? So long as different sayings like these express the same idea in fundamentally the same way, The Muse treats them as if they are the same because they amount to the same thing. If a saying is a proverb, its counterpart is a proverb; if a saying is a shibboleth, its counterpart is a shibboleth. Consequently, The Muse provides only one version for a saying, even if in practice it shows up sporting different clothes.
For comparison, consider the saying, You read my mind. Now contrast the saying, You took the words right out of my mouth. Changing mouth to mind results in a big difference. Both sayings involve somewhat similar situationsone person detecting another's trend of thoughtbut the phrasing and associated concepts are quite different.
Groping for a way to apply The Muse's sayings to your situation? The Muse leaves it up to you to adapt The Muse's version of a saying to your particular uses or circumstances. That's fair because a person using a saying that comes in multiple versions can readily decide for himself on the exact wording that best fits the situation or context at hand.
the shapes of sayings
As previously noted, many sayings come in more than one version or flavor. For example, from a technical point of view the saying Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted can be expressed equally well as Lock the barn door after the horse bolts.
There's no essential difference between the meaning or expression of these two versions even though their wording differs slightly. The Muse identifies sayings like these by asserting that the alternate versions have the same shape. They have the same shape because they say the same thing, employ similar words, and have parallel word construction.
In many cases, different versions of a given saying vary only in details, not in substance or type of impact. When they vary, it's usually because of linguistic options made possible by semantic or inflection alternatives. For example, the following versions all have a shape that is the same as Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted:
Linguistic transformations like these can generate different but equivalent versions of a saying, all with the same or similar shape. Transformations like these result from choice of word order, pronoun selection, subject, grammatical construction, and many other factors.
As with a joke, the exact wording of a saying can have a major impact on its punch or novelty. This is true whether or not it generates a significant change in shape. For example, in The Muse's opinion, the expression I've come too far to turn back now is zippier-sounding than the expression Since I've come this far, I'm not going to return. Even though they're technically equivalent, the first version makes much more of an impact.
Obviously, the shape of a saying can have an enormous impact on its catchiness. Word transformations like these frequently are the kinds of things that make the difference between a saying and a plain old sentence. Lock the barn door after the horse has bolted has a lot more emotional force and appeal than Lock the barn door after the horse has raced out. Duh.
Some sayings are plain old sentences. But the vast majority of sayings are memorable because of the clever and catchy ways they are phrased; they would not be sayings if they didn't possess a verbal and mental twist that gives them life.
about quasi sayings
Did you read the section called Kinds Of Sayings, above on this page? The Muse Of Language Arts also defines another kind of saying, namely a quasi saying.
A quasi saying is a special sort of saying; it's any expression that can pass for a saying, including new sayings, old new sayings, variations on old sayings, and other such kin. No formally trained linguist would recognize the term, but it comes in handy nonetheless.
By this reckoning, the title of Francis Ford Coppola's movie, Apocalypse Now, is a quasi saying, even though it's only a title, and even though it doesn't exactly match any of the different kinds of sayings listed above in the Kinds Of Sayings section. Why? Because Apocalypse Now is an observation; it's an expression (something said) whose meaning is self-evident that's well understood.
In the rare event that different optional wordings such as Apocalypse Now significantly alter a saying's meaning or message, or if they possess more or less punch or overtone, The Muse will so indicate.
Are sayings expressions? are sayings parts of speech?
An expression is a particular word, phrase, or form of words; it's the manner or form in which a thing is expressed in words; a particular wording or phrasing. A part of speech is a grammatical class into which words in some languages have traditionally been divided on the basis of their meaning, form, or syntactic function. A saying is something catchy and well-expressed, or it may be just a common phrase that is neither catchy nor well-expressed.
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This web site and
its contents are copyrighted by
Decision Consulting Incorporated (DCI).
All rights reserved.