randi (randi2204) wrote in fandom_grammar,

Say What? "The pen is mightier than the sword" & "There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle"

Today’s edition of Say What? takes a closer look at a couple of proverbs that warn us… to take a closer look and reconsider some of our preconceived notions. Let us discuss "The pen is mightier than the sword" and "There's many a good tune played on an old fiddle."

The pen is mightier than the sword

This saying was first written in its current and familiar form by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (yes, the man infamous for “It was a dark and stormy night.”) in 1839 in his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword.  (Richelieu, II, ii.)

But the sentiment behind the saying—that writing and making people think often works better than force or violence—had been around for centuries before that.  In fact, even before 406 B.C., the poet Euripides wrote “The tongue is mightier than the blade.”  A slightly later version is cedant arma togae, or “arms give way to persuasion,” from Cicero’s De Officiis.  Another similar quote from George Whetstone’s 1582 work Heptameron of Civil Discourses opines that “The dashe of a Pen is more greevous than the counterbuse of a Launce.”   Early U.S. statesman Thomas Jefferson exhorted Thomas Paine in a 1796 letter to “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.”  There’s no doubt Bulwer-Lytton was familiar with this idea before he set it down in the form with which we’re most familiar.

Of course, Buffy’s quite literal about it:

Buffy stared down at the oozing mess of the demon she’d just slain; the shattered remnants of the ballpoint pen fell from what used to be its forehead. “Okay, eeew.  Is it allergic to ink?”

Humming thoughtfully, Giles peered over her shoulder.  “It would seem that the pen is mightier than the sword is nothing less than the truth in this case.”

She rolled her eyes and stepped back from the mess threatening her shoes.  “Give me a nice pointy stake any day.”

Appearances are deceiving in this case because obviously the sword is a much more imposing weapon than a pen.  However, once you use the sword, you’ve only got a dead body (unless you’re using the sword to prop something up instead), while using the pen can give you nearly innumerable results, including poetry, plays, satire, and articles meant to persuade others to your cause.

There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle

The earliest source for this saying seems to be by Samuel Butler in his posthumously published work Way of All Flesh:

Beyond a haricot vein in one of my legs I’m as young as ever I was.  Old indeed!  There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle. (Way of All Flesh (1903), lxi)

This is a fairly recent cite for such an adage, but it seems likely the idea has been around for longer, particularly since there are variants, including “The older the violin, the sweeter the music,” which has been used as actual lyrics to a song.  Sometimes “fiddle” is used instead of “violin.”

Regardless of the minute differences between fiddles and violins, the intent of both these sayings is the same: just because someone is old doesn’t mean they can’t do the task at hand—perhaps even better than some young whippersnapper, because they’ve got years of experience.

To continue our musical exploration of this theme, the immortal Waylon Jennings sang, “I may be used, but baby, I ain’t used up.”

Giles isn't old, but that doesn't stop Spike:

“What’s the matter, Rupert?” Spike asked from his seat on a nearby headstone.  He wore his most annoying smirk.  “Havin’ trouble keepin’ up with the Slayer in your old age?”

Giles glared at him, though, since he was panting like a bellows, it did not have the intended effect.  “With age comes wisdom,” he retorted when he had the breath.  “And you’d do well to remember there’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Spike waved the words away dismissively.  “I bet you old Watchers tell yourselves that all the time.”

In the end, don’t let yourself be deceived by the harmless looking pen, or the head full of grey hair; both pens and old folk can be full of surprises.

The Free Dictionary here and here
Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs here and here
The Phrase Finder here and here
Trivia-Library.com Origins of Sayings
Cambridge Dictionaries Online

Tags: !say what, author:randi2204, language:colloquial, language:word origins

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