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Posts Tagged ‘a word to the wise’

A Word To The Wise

Posted by Admin on October 15, 2019

The entire expression is “a word to the wise is sufficient” and means that a smart person can figure out what’s implied without the need for a lot of discussion. All it takes is one word to put the person in the wrong straight again, with no repeat warnings and no need for lengthy explanations.  Generally speaking, the expression is used to alert the listener to the fact that advice or a warning is about to be shared with them, and it is strongly hinted at that the advice or warning should be heeded.

It’s interesting to note that variations of the expression also exist in other languages.

In French, you will hear people say, “A bon entendeur demi-mot” which, simply put, is “a half word to the wise.” In Italian, you will hear people say, “A buon intenditor poche parole” which means “a word to the wise is enough.”

In Portuguese, it becomes, “Acenai ao discreto, dai-o por feito” which translates into “give a hint to the man of sense, and consider the thing done.” The Dutch expression similarly expects as much as the French when it states, “Een half woord is bij hem genoeg” as this translates into “half a word to the wise is enough.”

The expression has been used in countless conversations over the generations, including this one, and it retains the meaning it has had for centuries.

In Volume 36 of Scribner’s Magazine published in 1904, in an article titled, “The Point of View: The Art of Marking Tags” the abbreviated version was used. The article addressed the issue of writing from an honest reaction from the author’s individual thoughts instead of relying heavily on maxims from familiar sources such as sayings that are understood by readers but stale from repetition. To illustrate the author’s point, he wrote:

Instead of illuminating his text with the wise sayings of his predecessors, he adopts them only after fortifying them with his mother wit, as the prudent physician fortifies his anaesthetic remedies. For ‘A word to the wise is sufficient’ he gives ‘A word to the wise is superfluous,’ or for ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ he sagaciously substitutes ‘Punctuality is the thief of time’ altering, with consummate impudence, dignified gray sentiments that have walked with Shakespeare and Milton.

In 1852, Grant and Griffith (the successors to Newbery and Harris) in London, England, published a book by Parry Gwynne titled, “A Word To The Wise, or Hints on the Current Improprieties of Expression in Writing and Speaking.” As a warning — since the book is slender — the author ensured readers knew that he did not presume to understand the task of teaching grammar to those who were ignorant of it, but to correct the errors caused by faded recollections and careless use of language.

SIDE NOTE 1 Parry Gwynne also wrote “Mistakes and Improprieties of Reading and Writing Corrected.”

It would appear that a word to the wise enjoyed quite the heyday in the 1850s with all manner of books published with the expression in the titles. Everything from agriculture to zoology seemed to have at least one book titled, “A Word to the Wise.”

The exact phrase was used in the book “Freemasonry: A Word to the Wise” that discussed, among other things, the twelve grades known as the Scotch Masonry.  The book was published in 1796, as was “The Farmer’s Friend, or A Word to the Wise” printed by the loyalist Londonderry Journal to counteract the acts of the ‘enemies of social order.’

Over the decades there was a proliferation of books with the expression in the title, which firmly cements the expression as being one that was used, and easily understood, by those in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Benjamin Franklin included the expression in his essay “The Way To Wealth” which he published in 1758 except he worded it as: A word to the wise is enough, and many words won’t fill a bushel.

But even before then, in 1646 and 1647, four books were published by John Musgrave who had a list of grievances he wanted the public to hear about. He was imprisoned in 1642 for six months for what he claimed was parliamentary protestations and opposition of the arbitrary and tyrannical government of the corrupt magistracy and ministry in Cumberland and Westmorland.

Upon his release, he went to Scotland, and returned two years later. Along with John Osmotherley, he traveled to London to address parliament, making charges against Richard Barwis who was a Member of Parliament. The matter was referred to a committee, however Musgrave refused to answer certain questions, and was found in contempt on 28 October 1645.

Upon his release in 1647, he presented a petition to the House of Lords describing the losses he had endured as a result of addressing parliament with his concerns. The petition did not result in compensation, and it wasn’t much longer before Musgrave found himself back in custody, entering the system again in July of that year.

Again, he attempted to force parliament to deal with his alleged grievances by holding a meeting of the London apprentices at Guildhall. When questioned, he denied having been there at all. Some bloodshed ensued, and as September drew to a close, the House resolved to indict Musgrave at the King’s Bench bar for high treason, and ordered him to be confined to Newgate. Nearly a year later, the charges were dropped and he was released again.

During this period of time, he wrote four pamphlets about his situation, and these were titled:

  1. A Word to the Wise [26 Jan. 1646]
  2. Another Word to the Wise [20 Feb. 1646]
  3. Yet Another Word to the Wise [1 Oct 1646], and
  4. A Fourth Word to the Wise [8 June 1647]

Those are a lot of wise words being shared as advice or counsel.

Musgrave continued to rail against the system, and even took on his two brothers and one sister, describing himself as the victim in a pamphlet he wrote and distributed in 1654 under the title, “A Cry of Blood of an Innocent Abel Against Two Bloody Cains,” he continued to insist he was unfairly mistreated by family, friends, and foes alike.

It is clear that a word to the wise was entrenched in people’s vocabulary in the 1600s for John Musgrave to make such ample use of the expression in his pamphlets.

Idiomation could continue to quote countless instances of the expression, making this entry incredibly long, and possibly exhausting to readers. What we can say is that the expression is found in the Talmud where the maxim is: A word to the wise is sufficient, but for a fool not even a stick helps.  The Talmud was compiled in the 4th century in Galilee, and as old as the Talmud is, the expression is found written in plays from Ancient Rome.

Comic Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC) authored the play “Pseudolus” which was first performed in 191 BC during the Megalesian Festival to celebrate the Greek goddess Cybele. The expression is found in Act IV, scene 7, at line 19 as “Verbum sat sapienti.”

This puts the expression to at least 191 BC, and most likely well before then since it was used in the play by Titus Maccius Plautus. Some idioms have very long legs.  This appears to be one such expression.

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A Word To The Wise

Posted by Admin 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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