Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘English proverb’

Devil Dances In Empty Pockets

Posted by Admin on July 5, 2013

If you’ve been told that the Devil dances in empty pockets, you’re being warned that people are more likely to cheat and steal if they don’t have money to buy what they want or need. In other words, it’s an extension of these sayings: the Devil finds work for idle hands, and idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. So if you have nothing to do and you have no money, the understanding is that the Devil will show up and find something for you to do … and it will be unlawful, immoral or both, and guaranteed to land you in a lot of hot water.

If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” is the title of a song written by Ken Spooner and Kim Williams, and recorded by American country music singer Joe Diffie. It was released in April 2011 and it reached #1 on Billboard’s country charts. The song’s chorus was this:

If the Devil danced in empty pockets, he’d have a ball in mine.
With a nine foot grand, a ten piece band and a twelve girl chorus line.
I’d raise some loot in a three-piece suit, give ’em one dance for a dime,
If the Devil Danced in empty pockets, he’d have a ball in mine.

The idiom was used in the title of a blog article at The Meadow Of Life blog. On April 15, 2008 the author discussed the credit crisis in the U.S. and how it affected global markets, and felt it was apt to entitle this piece “The Devil Dances in Empty Pockets.

Occasionally, a reporter will see an opportunity to include the saying in a tongue-in-cheek way as was seen in the Toledo Blade edition of March 10, 1996. The news story published about the Christian Nudist Conference in Longwood, NC made the news with its “buck naked” worshiping in an article entitled, “Naked Came The Preacher.” The article closed off with this comment:

Besides, if it is true that the devil dances in empty pockets, what’s the horned wonder going to do when all these folks begin to pray? And, after all, are we not all created equal by your maker, a fact which last week’s conference of naked Christians no doubt proved most emphatically? Good thing God has a sense of humor.

Now, unfortunately, this idiom isn’t one that appears often and in researching the idiom, it is credited as a Kurdish proverb, a German proverb, and an English proverb.   However, there is no attribution provided for any of those claims. But all is not lost as the expression is an extension of “the devil finds work for idle hands” which is credited to St. Jerome (345 – 420).

The spirit of the idiom is found in a moral from Aesop (620 – 560 BCE): “He that serves God for rewards will serve the Devil for better wages.”

What this means for the Devil dances in empty pockets is that while there are roots that are far-reaching, it doesn’t seem to be an idiom for which research yields results beyond the few mentioned here. If readers or visitors to the blog can provide a published version of this idiom along with the date it was published, by whom and where, Idiomation would be grateful for your help.

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If My Grandmother Had Wheels …

Posted by Admin on January 3, 2011

The expression, while humorous, underscores the fact that people will sometimes throw irrelevant questions or comments into a discussion thereby changing the original focus of what was already being discussed (see the video included below).

Back in 1984, while watching Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, I heard Scotty exclaim, “Aye, and if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon.”  It was an interesting take — this counterfactual thinking — on what was allegedly an everyday-life situation for Scotty!  But where did this expression come from and where would Idiomation find the earliest published version?

Just 6 years before the movie’s release, the New York Times ran an article on February 27, 1978 entitled “Albany’s patronage Roots Hidden By Change In Law” written by Steven R. Weisman.  He reported:

[Assemblyman Stanley Fink, the majority leader] asked her a question and she replied with a phrase she translated as, “If my grandmother had wheels, I would have been a bus.”

Nearly a decade before that, The Pittsburg Press ran an article on August 26, 1970 written by Wauhillau La Hay entitled “Hormone Theory Drawn Into Women’s Lib Debate.”  Here readers were treated to the following:

Dr. Ramey noted that “Dr. Berman says genetics is destiny.  I think what he’s trying to say is that human beings with ovaries should not enter the White House as president.  That if I did not have a certain XY (chromosomes) in my blood, I’d go th the men’s room, not the ladies’ room.  That’s like saying if my grandmother had wheels, she would be a station wagon,” Dr. Ramey declared. 

She argued against the position that women are inferior because they suffer from discomfort during menstrual periods, saying “Pioneer women crossing the plains didn’t take time out for cramps, did they?”  Her audience cheered.

The English saying is a direct translation of the Spanish:  “Si mi abuela tuviera ruedas seria una bicicleta” (If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a bicycle.).

However, the sense of the phrase is found in the older French expression:  “Avec des si et des mais, on mettrait Paris en bouteille” (With ifs and buts, we would bottle Paris.)

The earliest published variation of the expression about grandmother having wheels that Idiomation could find is in the book, Jiddische Sprichwörter , written by Ignaz Bernstein and B.W. Segel, published in Frankfurt, Germany in 1908.

This video is a perfect example of the use of the idiom.

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