Born in Swanmore, England, Stephen Leacock was one of 11 children of an unsuccessful farmer and an ambitious mother, a woman to whom Leacock no doubt owed his energetic and status-conscious nature. In 1891, while teaching at the prestigious Upper Canada College in Toronto, Leacock obtained a modern language degree from the University of Toronto. In 1903, after receiving a Ph.D. in political economy from the University of Chicago, he joined the staff of McGill University, Montreal, as professor of politics and economics. Leacock’s career as a humorist began when he had some comic pieces published as Literary Lapses in 1910. This successful book was followed by two more books of comic sketches, Nonsense Novels (1911) and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912), which is now considered his best book. Leacock continued this frantic literary output for the remainder of his career, producing more than 30 books of humor as well as biographies and social commentaries. The Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour was established after his death to honor annually an outstanding Canadian humorist.
Old Proverbs Made New
The following article is an extract of Winnowed Wisdom (1926) written by great humorist and educator Stephen Leacock.
It has occurred to me that somebody in one of the English departments of our colleges ought to get busy and re-write our national proverbs. They are all out of date. They don’t fit any longer. Indeed, many of them are precisely the converse of existing facts. Our proverbs have come down to us from the days of long ago; days when the world was very primitive and very simple and very different; when people never moved more than a mile and a half from home and were all afraid of the dark; and when wisdom was handed out by old men with white whiskers called prophets, every one of whom would be “retired” nowadays by any first class board of trustees as past the age-limit of common sense. But in those days all the things that were said by these wise old men, who had never seen a motor car, were gathered up and called proverbs and repeated by all the common people as the last words of wisdom. The result is that even today we still go on repeating them, without realizing how hopelessly they are off the track. Take as a first sample the proverb that is perhaps the best known in our language:
Birds of a Feather Flock Together
But they don’t. Ask any first class naturalist. If the wise old men had taken another look they would have seen that the last thing birds ever want to do is to flock together. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they keep away from their own species, and only flock when it is absolutely necessary. So much for the birds. But the proverb is really supposed to refer to people and then it is wrong again. People “of a feather” do not flock together. Tall men fall in love with little women. A girl with a beautiful fair skin and red hair marries a man who looks like a reformed orang-outang. A clergyman makes a friend of an auctioneer and a banker would rather spend a day with an Adirondack fishing guide than with a whole vaultful of bankers. Burglars during the daytime go and swim in the Y.M.C.A. pool. Forgers in their off time sing in the choir, and choirmasters when they are not singing shoot craps. In short, there is nothing in the proverb whatsoever. It ought to be revised under the modern conditions to read:
Birds of any particular feather and persons of any particular character or occupation show upon the whole a disposition rather to seek out something dissimilar to their own appearance and nature to consort with something homologous to their own essential entity. In that shape one has a neat workable proverb. Try another:
A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss
Entirely wrong again. This was supposed to show that a young man who wandered from home never got on in the world. In very ancient days it was true. The young man who stayed at home and worked hard and tilled the ground and goaded oxen with a long stick like a lance found himself as he grew old a man of property, owning four goats and a sow. The son who wandered forth in the world was either killed by the cannibals or crawled home years afterwards doubled up with rheumatism. So the old men made the proverb. But nowadays it is exactly wrong. It is the rolling stone that gathers the moss. It is the ambitious boy from Honkville, Indiana, who trudges off to the city leaving his elder brother in the barnyard and who later makes a fortune and founds a university. While his elder brother still has only the old farm with three cows and a couple of pigs, he has a whole department of agriculture with great sheds-full of Tamworth hogs and a professor to every six of them. In short, in modern life it is the rolling stone that gathers the moss. And the geologists–outside of Tennessee–say that the moss on the actual stone was first started in exactly the same way. It was the rolling of the stone that smashed up the earth and made the moss grow.
Take another proverb:
All is not Gold that Glitters
How perfectly ridiculous! Everybody in the days in which we live knows–even a child knows–that all is gold that glitters. Put on clothes enough, appearance enough and you will be accepted anywhere. Just do a little glittering and everybody will think you are gold. Make a show, be a humbug, and you will succeed so fast that presently, being very wealthy and prominent, you will really think yourself a person of great merit and intellect. In other words, the glitter makes the gold. That is all there is to it. Gold is really one of the most useless of all material objects. Even now we have found no real use for it, except to fill our teeth. Any other employment of it is just glitter. So the proverb might be revised to read:
Every thing or person may be said to stand in high esteem and to pass at a high value provided that it or he makes a sufficient show, glitter, or appearance, the estimation being in inverse ratio to the true quantitative measurement of the reality of it, them or her. That makes a neat workable proverb, expressed with up-to-date accuracy.
Or here is another famous proverb that is exactly the contrary of truth:
People Who Live in Glass Houses Ought Not to Throw Stones
Not at all. They are the very people who ought to throw stones and to keep on throwing them all the time. They ought to keep up such a fusillade of stones from their glass house that no one can get near it.
Or if the proverb is taken to mean that people who have faults of their own ought not to talk of other people’s faults, it is equally mistaken. They ought to talk of other people’s faults all the time so as to keep attention away from their own.
But the list of proverbs is so long that it is impossible to do more than make a casual mention of a few others.
One Swallow Does Not Make a Summer
Perhaps not. But there are ever so many occasions when one swallow–just one single swallow–is better than nothing to drink at all. And if you get enough of them they do make a summer.
Charity Begins at Home
Perfectly ridiculous. Watch any modern city householder when a beggar comes to his door. Charity begins with the Federated Charities Office, or with the Out of Work Mission, or with the City Hall, or if need be, with the Police Court–in short, anywhere but at home. Our whole effort is now to keep charity as far from home as possible.
It is a Wise Child that knows its Own Father
Not at all. Alter this and make it read: It is a very silly boy who isn’t on to his old man.
Even a Worm Will Turn at Last
Wrong. It turns at once, immediately. It never waits.
A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush
Yes, but a bird in a good restaurant is worth ten of either of them.