Final Word

A smorgasbord of wisdom in my dictionary

Bitter words.jpg

If there is one subject on which South Africans find it difficult to remain “as cool as cucumbers” it is the phenomenon of racism.

This was forcefully illustrated by the heated war of words that erupted on social media when an estate agent from KZN did not choose her words carefully in complaining about overcrowded beaches.

In the verbal battles that followed some of the participants lost not only their reputations, but also the jobs needed to put food on their tables.

They would have done well if they had first availed themselves of the smorgasbord of wisdom that is offered by proverbs and expressions associated with the world of fruit and vegetables.

Let’s start with the cucumber expression of our opening paragraph. Meaning to stay calm and collected under pressure, it derives from folklore, but it was scientifically proven in 1970 that on a hot day the temperature inside a field cucumber is as much as 20 degrees cooler than the air temperature.

The phrase was first recorded in 1732 in a poem, New Song on New Similes, by the British poet John Gay. One of the verses of his poem reads: “Cool as a cucumber could see the rest of womankind”.

There is some speculation about the origin of the word ‘cucumber’, which arrived in English during the late 14th century from the Old French word cocombre (in Modern French it is concombre). It replaced the name of the fruit in Old English, which was eorþæppla (plural), which literally meant ‘earth-apples’.

Prominence of apples

Apples themselves feature very prominently in the smorgasbord of wisdom offered by proverbs and expressions, going back millenniums. So prominent, in fact, that the fruit from the “tree of knowledge” in the book of Genesis of the Bible, in folklore became an apple – despite the fact that nowhere in Genesis it is identified as such.

Apples in proverbs, and in the context we use them, however, did make it into the Bible. King Solomon, in Proverbs 25:11, is quoted as saying: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (International Version; 1978 edition.)

The best-known apple proverb is probably the claim that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. It is not certain beyond all doubt that it originated there, but the first recorded reference was traced back to Wales in 1866 as: “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.”

A number of variants of the rhyme were in circulation around the turn of the 20th century. In 1913 Elizabeth Wright recorded a Devonian dialect version and also the first known mention of the version we use now, in Rustic Speech and Folk-lore.

Apples are also used in many languages to convey snippets of wisdom in proverbs and expressions. For example, the French would say, “never look for a worm in the apple of your eye”, or “the old monkey gets the apple”.

A Galician proverb has it that he “who is won with a nut, may be lost with an apple”, and from the Germans we get the expression that “one bad apple spoils the barrel.”

One of the most interesting ones I came across is the Vietnamese way of complimenting a lady by telling her she has “teeth as sugar apple seeds!”

It originates from the fashion among the Vietnamese since before the 19th century to stain their teeth black. The white-toothed ladies were ordinary and not fashionable.

Wider garden

Wider harvesting from the garden of fruit and vegetables to package words of wisdom leads us to the Old Testament of the Bible, where in Proverbs 15:17 we read: “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.”

An old Jewish proverb tells us that “when a worm sits in horseradish, it thinks there’s nothing sweeter”, another German one reflects that “patience is bitter, but it bears sweet fruit” and an Albanian proverb warns young men: “Don’t marry a girl who wants strawberries in January.”

Final word

In the context of how the present war of words over racism has panned out for some of those caught up in it, the final word – or the cherry on top of the smorgasbord, it you want – should go to the unknown author who wrote: “Let my words, like vegetables, be tender and sweet, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.”

by Piet Coetzer

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