Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

A Word To The Wise

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 8, 2013

When someone adds the comment, “a word to the wise” in conversation or in writing, what’s implied is that smart people don’t need long, drawn out explanations to understand what’s being hinted at by the speaker or the author.

In the January 1, 2011 edition of the Jamaica Observer newspaper, journalist Mervin Stoddart wrote at length about his career as an educator, and the people in his life who had influenced him. As he began his story, he included this in the first paragraph:

Mr Dibbs taught wisdom and often ended his remarks to me with the adage, “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

In Jack London’s book, “The Red One” published in 1918, the following is found in Chapter 3 entitled, “Like Argus Of The Ancient Times.”

“If you think I’d give away on the old codger–” Charles began indignantly.

“You thought that,” Liverpool checked him, “because I never mentioned any such thing. Now–get me and get me hard: I don’t care what you’ve been thinking. It’s what you’re going to think. We’ll make the police post some time this afternoon, and we’ve got to get ready to pull the bluff without a hitch, and a word to the wise is plenty.”

“If you think I’ve got it in my mind–” Charles began again.

“Look here,” Liverpool shut him off. “I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t want to know. I want you to know what’s in my mind. If there’s any slip-up, if old dad gets turned back by the police, I’m going to pick out the first quiet bit of landscape and take you ashore on it. And then I’m going to beat you up to the Queen’s taste. Get me, and get me hard. It ain’t going to be any half-way beating, but a real, two-legged, two-fisted, he-man beating. I don’t expect I’ll kill you, but I’ll come damn near to half-killing you.”

It appeared in Charles’ Dickens book, “David Copperfield” which was originally published in monthly magazine installments from May 1849 to November 1850. In Chapter 26, where a discussion as to whether a certain young lady should or should not be compared to a barmaid, the character known as Mrs. Crupp mentions the expression in conversation.

‘Mr. Copperfull,’ returned Mrs. Crupp, ‘I’m a mother myself, and not likely. I ask your pardon, sir, if I intrude. I should never wish to intrude where I were not welcome. But you are a young gentleman, Mr. Copperfull, and my adwice to you is, to cheer up, sir, to keep a good heart, and to know your own walue. If you was to take to something, sir,’ said Mrs. Crupp, ‘if you was to take to skittles, now, which is healthy, you might find it divert your mind, and do you good.’

With these words, Mrs. Crupp, affecting to be very careful of the brandy – which was all gone – thanked me with a majestic curtsey, and retired. As her figure disappeared into the gloom of the entry, this counsel certainly presented itself to my mind in the light of a slight liberty on Mrs. Crupp’s part; but, at the same time, I was content to receive it, in another point of view, as a word to the wise, and a warning in future to keep my secret better.

Jumping back into the previous century, William Haughton’s play “Englishmen For My Money: Or A Pleasant Comedy Called, A Woman Will Have Her Will” was published in 1616 and in that book, the following conversation is exchanged between two characters:

ANTHONY
I beseech you, monsieur, give me audience.

FRISCO
What would you have? What should I give you?

ANTHONY
Pardon, sir, mine uncivil and presumptuous intrusion, who
endeavour nothing less than to provoke or exasperate you against me.

FRISCO [aside]
They say a word to the wise is enough. So by this little French
that he speaks, I see he is the very man I seek for. — Sir, I pray, what
is your name?

ANTHONY
I am nominated Monsieur le Mouché, and rest at your bon
service.

And this expression — although not exactly as “a word to the wise” — is found in a poem by William Dunbar entitled, “Of Discretioun In Asking” dating back to 1513 which reads in part:

He that does all his best servyis
May spill it all with crakkis and cryis,
Be fowllinoportunitie;
Few wordis may serve the wyise:
In asking sowld dicretioun be.

Now, remember Mervin Stoddart’s piece published in the Jamaica Observer of January 1, 2011 where he mentioned Mr. Dibbs? There was more to that comment than I previously shared. In fact, if you continued reading the article, you would have read this:

Mr Dibbs taught wisdom and often ended his remarks to me with the adage, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” Only he would say it in Latin.

What Mr. Dibbs would have been heard saying is “verbum sat sapienti” which translates to be: A word to the wise is sufficient.  And so it is.

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