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You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouth

By Sal Moriarty
We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. Alan Watts
Thought experiment:
We go through life hearing, and repeating, old sayings, quoting works of literature and holy books. Do we examine those cliches, adages, proverbs and aphorisms closely when we hear or say them?  If we did, would our opinions about them change?
To thine own self be true”, for example, is one of the most quoted sayings in history. It is, generally, accepted as a positive admonition. Few are aware those are the words of Polonius in Hamlet. Literary historians often refer to Polonius as a blowhard and hypocrite. Much of what he says, in the context of the play, is meant to be ironic. He is not a person whose advice you would be keen to follow. Of course, there's another expression one could employ regarding Polonius: even a broken clock is correct twice a day.
How about “you can't judge a book by its cover”? As a youngster, when my mother found my eye drifting toward a certain section of the magazine rack at the convenience store, I received a forceful tug on my collar in the opposite direction. She knew what was behind those magazine covers of scantily clad women.Taken less literally, the saying is generally accepted to mean you can't determine what's underneath by surface appearances. A good thing, right? This, on the other hand, flies in the face of “I saw it with my own eyes”.
One I used to hear a lot was “live and let live”. That was a biggie back in the day. Of course, logically, everything comes down to a matter of degree. Not so easy to utilize this one with Nazis, for example. Sometimes you have to take a stand, even if the “living” is happening on the other side of the planet.But, for me, it's an interesting one because I don't see it being applied much in our modern era. In politics, for example, what passes for policy (on all sides) is generally just fingers being pointed while telling them to stop doing that. Much of the citizenry seems to be living lives based on the edicts of that old philosopher from Bewitched, Gladys Kravitz (“Abner!”). Ask your grandparents, kids.
There are one-word cliches, too. Literally, comes to mind. How often do you hear that word utilized, and not in its literal sense (see what I did there?). Ever hear someone say something along the lines of, “I literally thought I was going to die!” Assuming it is not being articulated on a battlefield, but by someone recalling that time they passed wind on a date, probably not the best usage of the word.
How about “all's fair in love and war”. I think King David was the first to proffer this sentiment. It's certainly one being followed in modern life if Dateline is any indicator. Many nations calling down mayhem on their neighbors seem to have taken it to heart.
“A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down,” according to a youthful Julie Andrews. It is well-intentioned, to be sure, but fails to acknowledge the spoon full of sugar may well be the reason you need the medicine in the first place. “No man is an island” is one of the more dubious cliches in my estimation. When I hear it, I always think of the great Jackson Browne song For a Dancer and the line, “In the end there is one dance you'll do alone”. Yep.
Words can be fun to analyze, and we live in a place where we have time to consider such curiosities. Most of us do not have to be too concerned about a roof over our heads or food in our bellies or barbarians at the gate. Sometimes we live lives of privilege without even realizing it. I say let's take advantage while we can.  Time may be short. 
That in mind, Jesus said, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Now, I know of no one who follows this advice (well, there are a few, but their behavior is not something you would wish to emulate). Is it meant to be taken literally? My Southern Baptist upbringing taught me that the entire book is to be taken literally. So, adios to those 401k's, I guess.
Now, some might say I've taken that quote out of context. Maybe, but few will argue Jesus lobbied for accumulating wealth on earth. I'm thinking of the young man in the Bible who asked Jesus, “What lack I yet?” When Jesus told him to give everything he had to the poor and follow him, the young man “...went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions”.I don't see that "no thought for the morrow" verse on tee-shirts much and it seems unlikely to show up on most quoted verses of the Bible lists. It's a tough one, best avoided.
Decades ago, I heard Rush Limbaugh coin the phrase, “Words mean things.” I didn't keep up with Mr. Limbaugh much after that, but the phrase stuck. Whatever category it falls into - cliche, adage, proverb or aphorism – I think it is spot-on. Words we say casually deserve inspection. Don Henley employed, perhaps, the most famous cliché ever in one song:
It only takes a breath or two
To tear your world apart
Sticks and stones may break your bones
But words can break your heart
It is what is.

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