Does it matter that old adages are incomprehensible to young people?

For thousands of years men have been farmers or hunters, or at most one degree of separation from these activities. As a result, homespun proverbs have been for millennia as common as homespun clothes. This continues to be true in much of the world. For example, even today, China has 800 million farmers. That perhaps surprises you, but even more dramatic is this: ninety years ago, 42% of Americans lived on a farm. So the change away from the knowledge of crops and animals, even in America, is incredibly recent.

Today in America, however, many young people haven’t a clue what it signifies to reap what you sow, or what reap or sow mean. They don’t know why you make hay while the sun shines; they may not even know what hay is. They don’t know about early birds or birds of a feather or eggs in one basket or counting chickens. For that matter, how can you look a gift horse in the mouth if you’ve never seen a horse up close?

Maybe we’re too persnickety. After all, adages come and go, just like buggy whip makers. Every generation has its greatest invention since the printing press, the light bulb, or sliced bread; life moves on. And today’s adages, from Godwin’s Law to the Dilbert Principle, aren’t bad at all.


We would like to have concluded this piece on that light note above, but we just can’t. We have repeatedly said that we can’t afford to let our bridges to the past crumble, and that is more important than ever. In our perilous times, some adages shouldn’t be forgotten. William L. Shirer, in the epigraph for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, quoted George Santayana’s famous dictum from 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shirer went on to say in the Foreword on page xii: “In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button.” That’s too long to be an adage. However, Shirer does seem a bit prophetic about the millenarian Ahmadinejad and his new Aryan nation, not to mention an entire generation of Islamic suicide-murderers, doesn’t he?

One Response to “Does it matter that old adages are incomprehensible to young people?”

  1. phil Says:

    I didn’t really notice that many of these sayings emerged out of the farming experience until just a few years ago. Like many people I just repeated them without grasping their meaning. To some degree we see a lot of sports terminology being used: slam dunk, fumble, Hail Mary pass etc.

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