On Proverbs and Idioms

by F.

While allusion and metaphor are the salt and pepper of human communication, proverbs and idioms are nearly as important. They are the sugar and spice. Any communicator’s toolbox should have allusion, metaphor, proverb and idiom right at the top.

Proverbs are especially powerful. I wonder how many technical concepts are, at heart, proverbs? I suspect a lot. (Compiling that list would be an interesting project.) For instance, “path dependency.” That sounds pretty technical. Impressive even. And it is. But let’s go to the heart of the concept, the semantic nucleus. Path dependency means “history matters.” Proverbially, it means, “You can’t unscramble an egg.”

Or consider “sunk costs.” That’s easy: “Don’t cry over spilled milk.”

How about “first mover advantage.” Oh. Yeah. “The early bird gets the worm.”

I watched the economist Joseph Stiglitz give a talk at the World Bank and he noted the phenomenon of “hysteresis.” This essentially means “delay.” We can intervene in the market by, say, lowering the discount rate, but the results won’t show up immediately. If you know Steinmetz’s Equation, then you may associate economic hysteresis with electromagnetism. Or you might recall the saying heard in twelve-step programs the world over: “Time takes time.”

I could go on. More annoyingly, I could describe this task as a mapping from the set of proverbs onto the set of technical concepts. Or maybe I could define a function that takes as arguments the elements of the set of proverbs and the set of technical concepts and returns an unordered pair consisting of exactly one element from the first set and exactly one element from the second. Or I could just say I’m, like, pairing them up.

New proverbs are rare, but when they come along, you remember them. Consider “Nine women can’t have one baby in one month.” (From, I believe, The Mythical Man-Month, though I can’t find the exact reference at the moment.)

These ruminations on idioms started with my reading a wonderful book called Made to Stick. While the book is ostensibly a biz book, it’s really about the psychology of human communication. The only weak section is the one on story. (The best book for understanding the psychology of story is The Tools of Screenwriting.) The rest of Made to Stick, however, is clear, clever, concrete and credible.

On the whole, it’s probably the best—and most memorable—set of communication tools collected in one volume. And it’s an almost effortless read. One might say the authors practice what they preach.