Are these 11 proverbs for the digital age?

It might feel as though certain familiar sayings have existed since the dawn of time. But proverbs have to be invented – and here are some recent candidates

Powered by article titled “Are these 11 proverbs for the digital age?” was written by David Shariatmadari, for on Thursday 16th April 2015 08.25 UTC

Proverbs are strange. They seem to exist outside of daily life, representing common sense that has passed from one generation to the next since time immemorial. They don’t follow fashion or incorporate the latest linguistic tics. Who first said the words “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? It sounds like a stupid question.

But, think about it: when was the phrase “You can’t judge a book by its cover” coined? At a time when books had covers, and that’s has only been the case for a few hundred years. As paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder writes, “Proverbs … do not fall from the sky, and neither are they products of the mythical soul of the folk.” In fact, they get disseminated like any other cultural artefact. Many western proverbs, for example, have their roots in classical literature. Latin proverbs were used in translation exercises, a practice which drummed them into the minds of students, who then took them out into the world. That’s the reason equivalents of “There’s no smoke without fire” exist in 54 European languages – not because that’s the natural metaphor for a universal human experience, but because they have the same source.

All of which suggests that it’s possible, despite the apparent “timelessness” of many of the best known examples, for new proverbs to spring up, or be deliberately invented. The illusion of timelessness comes about because we don’t perceive them as being proverbial until they’ve been in use for a long while; when they’ve become so common that it makes no sense to ask who first uttered the words. The trick, then, is to catch them at the cusp, when they’re making the transition from slogan, catchphrase or quote to homespun wisdom. Here are some possible candidates.

Haters gonna hate

This didn’t originate with Taylor Swift, but in hip-hop: Know Your Meme records its use in a 3LW track from 2000. It has potential as a proverb because it embodies a useful life lesson: you shouldn’t let other people’s negative opinion of you affect you too much. Interestingly, the use of “haters” as a plural noun goes back much further. An 1865 article in the British Quarterly review uses the phrase “It may be true that these haters hate England also”.

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off

This is an example of an anti-proverb, an adaptation of an existing saying for heightened effect. “The truth will set you free” comes from the Bible, the source of hundreds of phrases that have become part of everyday language (see, for example “Can the leopard change its spots?”). Not only does it make a lot of sense, there’s already some confusion about who first said it – Werner Ehrhard, Gloria Steinem, Bill Cosby? – making it a good prospective proverb.

If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product

A smart way of defining the relationship between a particular breed of internet business and its users. Their services are free to use because they’re selling information about your preferences and behaviour. Some attributed a version of it to Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, but he’s cleared that up – it wasn’t him, and may have first appeared on MetaFilter.

You’ve got to fake it to make it

There’s a touch of the motivational seminar about this phrase, which encourages you to attempt difficult tasks even if you feel you aren’t qualified. As you might expect, it’s first recorded during the golden age of American self-help, the 1970s, with an increase in use during the go-getting 80s, a dip at the beginning of the 90s and a surge since then.

The system isn’t broken. It’s fixed

Another species of anti-proverb, this one plays on the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” which seems to have emerged in the 1960s. It originated in US politics, where campaign group Move to Amend has been encouraging people to stamp it on banknotes. The aim is to curtail corporate political donations. As a proverb, however, it has lots of potential: it could apply to any situation where the playing field isn’t level.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

A bit of back-covering from programmers here, an attempt to disguise a software glitch as being all part of the plan: the equivalent of Pee Wee Herman’s “I meant to do that” but with computers. It could also be seen, however, as an encouragement to find the best in everything. Sort of like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” (which may have originally come from the pen of Dale Carnegie, author of How to Make Friends and Influence People).

You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out

Warren Buffett, of Omaha, Nebraska, one of the world’s wealthiest people.
Warren Buffett, of Omaha, Nebraska, one of the world’s wealthiest people. Photograph: Larry W Smith/EPA

This proto-proverb is unusual in that it can be traced reliably to a single author, eccentric businessman Warren Buffett. He meant it as a warning to investors, but it’s a such a good image it deserves a wider audience. Is there someone in your life you think might be skinny-dipping?

Don’t read the comments

This advice only makes sense in the context of top-down online publishing, and may have a limited shelf-life, depending on how formats evolve. “Don’t read the comments” can be a useful mental health tip on some websites. While the vast majority of internet users are polite, eschew anonymity and are constructive and friendly, one or two aren’t – or so I’m told.

90% of everything is crap

Otherwise known as “Sturgeon’s revelation”, author Theodore Sturgeon’s phrase was borne out of frustration at having to defend science fiction to snobs. “The claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative,” he wrote, “because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.” The maxim is nearly 60 years old, but it has a contemporary ring to it, particularly in the age of the internet. Come to think of it, is 90% a bit on the conservative side?

Problem between keyboard and chair

Part of a sub-genre of tech-culture proverbs to be filed under “humans are idiots”. If the IT helpdesk in your office finds there’s a problem between the keyboard and the chair, it means you’re to blame. See also: “All computers wait at the same speed”, and “Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity”.

The fish that is being microwaved doesn’t fear the lightning

No one likes to admit they’ve done their research on Wikipedia, but the entry on proverbs contains this gem, apparently collected by a researcher in Haiti. The use of “microwave” dates it to the last quarter of the 20th century or later, but it clearly contains ancient wisdom. Not necessarily comforting, but useful nonetheless. Here’s hoping we can all avoid the microwave.

Thank you to everyone on Twitter who gave examples of contemporary proverbs © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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