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Authors: Chloe Rhodes

One for Sorrow

BOOK: One for Sorrow
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The decorations in this book are by Thomas Bewick – though a few may be by his pupils – the leading English wood engraver of his day, who was born near Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, in 1753. A naturalist, sportsman and ornithologist as well as an artist, his published works include
A General History of Quadrupeds
, the two-volume
A History of British Birds
, several editions of Æsop's
A Memoir of Thomas Bewick written by himself
, which was published in 1862, thirty-four years after his death. Pre-eminent among wood engravers in his own time – he was praised by, among others, Wordsworth and Charlotte Brontë – he remains one of the greatest of illustrators.


Michael O'Mara Books Limited

Copyright Information

First published in Great Britain in 2011 by

Michael O'Mara Books Limited

9 Lion Yard

Tremadoc Road

London SW4 7NQ

Copyright © Michael O'Mara Books Limited 2011

All rights reserved. You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable
to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Papers used by Michael O'Mara Books Limited are natural,
recyclable products made from wood grown in sustainable forests.
The manufacturing processes conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.

ISBN: 978-1-84317-700-5 in hardback print format

ISBN: 978-1-84317-779-1 in EPub format

ISBN: 978-1-84317-780-7 in Mobipocket format

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Designed and typeset by Ana Bjez

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

For Lorna Rhodes, my Grandma, and for Iris Dyson, my great godmother.


We live in an age of scientific and technological enlightenment. We understand the electromagnetic and gravitational forces that exert their influence on our planet; we've sent satellites into space that allow us to forecast the weather, navigate the seas and communicate face to digitized face with friends on the opposite side of the earth. We know how diseases spread, both through populations and within the body, and in most cases, we know how to cure them. We've identified the sections of the brain responsible for making us feel happy, motivated, ashamed; we even know the chemical responses that occur when we fall in love. We've cloned sheep, genetically modified corn, created new human life in a Petri dish and calculated the rate at which the universe is expanding into infinity. And yet, what shapes the discourse of our daily lives is not modern insight but ancient wisdom.
    Sayings from folklore that have been passed from one generation to the next, often without adaptation despite centuries of change, are still a key facet of our conversations. Many have a pleasing rhythm or rhyme that lend a certain musicality to our speech and they are usually passed on within families by word of mouth. It has however, been customary for lovers of language to catalogue these sayings every century or so and preserve them in writing. Once such collector of proverbs was the eighteenth-century physician Thomas Fuller, who compiled a volume called
Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings,
which was published in London in 1732. In the preface he explains: 'Because verses are easier got by heart, and stick faster in the memory than prose; and because ordinary people use to be much taken with the clinking of syllables; many of our proverbs are so formed . . . This little artifice, I imagine, was contrived purposely to make the sense abide the longer in the memory, by reason of its oddness and archness.'
    It certainly worked as a way of lodging these sayings in our collective consciousness, but sometimes the oddness and archness Fuller describes means that we use these phrases instinctively, knowing how to use them without really knowing where they come from or what they actually mean. This book attempts to unravel the secrets of these phrase's origins and the contexts within which they might first have been used. For the most part, they can be divided into three categories: the moral, the practical and the superstitious.
    Grouped together, the proverbs in the moral bracket create a kind of guidebook on how to be good and tend to have their origins in country customs, parables from the Bible,
and the musings of Ancient Greek philosophers. We use them today to remind others, and sometimes ourselves, of the perils of vices like the greed of the farmer who killed the goose that laid the golden egg and the merits of virtues such as the graciousness displayed by those who don't look a gift horse in the mouth. They also served as way of helping people understand human behaviour (birds of a feather flock together) and the trials of life (there's no rose without a thorn).
    Those sayings that have some practical application are most often rooted in observations of the natural world, and in the days before modern technology were used to predict the weather. In medieval England, when many of these sayings were first used, the patterns of rainfall and sunshine were a matter of life and death. The weather determined the fertility of the earth and, as the devastating famines of the early Middle Ages had demonstrated, the survival of the populace depended on the success of each year's harvest. A warm, dry summer would ensure that crops ripened, that there was enough hay to feed the livestock and that the harvest could take place at the optimum time, so farmers turned to the trees and noted that ‘Ash before Oak the summer is all a soak, Oak before Ash the summer is but a splash.' A warm winter on the other hand could cause crops to begin growing too early only to be killed off when the frosts arrived, which is why ‘a snow year is a rich year'. Many of the phrases from weather lore that we use as a kind of rustic commentary on the weather today were once the only means people had of planning and preparing for their own survival.
    The sayings that stem from superstition are perhaps those that on the surface seem least applicable today. The secularization of Western society has diluted the blend of religious zeal and belief in the supernatural that lay behind them, but they have become so well woven into the fabric of our lives that we count magpies and make wishes on ladybirds without pausing to think about why we're doing it. And the devil, who in the God-fearing days of our ancestors was held responsible for all manner of ills, still makes regular appearances in our vocabulary, in obvious ways in phrases like ‘talk of the devil' and more covertly, in sayings like ‘needs must . . . (when the devil drives)'.
    Perhaps part of the reason these phrases from folklore endure is our yearning for a simpler age. There's comfort to be had from knowing that the human condition hasn't been altered by the advancement in our understanding of the world. But maybe it's also because of the immediacy with which they relate to our own experiences of life. While we could quite easily switch on the television to watch the weather forecast, it is still deeply satisfying to see a red sky at night and anticipate the clear skies that would have delighted the shepherds of the Middle Ages. It still feels relevant, despite the years that have passed since traditional forges closed, to strike while the iron's hot and, for all our understanding of human psychology, it is still a comfort in the depths of despair to be told that the darkest hour is that before the dawn.
    Over centuries, if not millennia, words of wisdom have been passed down, first by word of mouth and then included in poetry, plays, histories and, of course, collections of adages, maxims, aphorisms, homilies and gnomes (not the garden variety). Just as there are many terms for them, there are many versions, as they have been altered to suit their context. Some become distrustful when burnt, some when bitten; where magpies are few, they have been replaced by crows; at sea and in harbours it is the sailor or the fisherman who is delighted by red skies. The meaning, however, generally remains the same. So do not be disappointed or feel cheated if you find the sayings in forms that differ from those you knew. The ones included in this book are not necessarily the ‘correct' versions – they are just the versions that first came to me. To include every variant would make a very long and over-earnest book.
    As Thomas Fuller said of his collection, this is my effort to ‘throw together a vast confused heap of unsorted things old and new which you may pick over and make use of according to your judgement and pleasure'.


BOOK: One for Sorrow
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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