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Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover? ()

Time Flies When You're Deconstructing Aphorisms

May 15, 2010 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Actions may speak louder than words, but words are pretty powerful, especially when used incorrectly. That's the thrust of a new book by Julian Baggini called Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?: 100 Fresh Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations.

As his own cover suggests, Baggini's book takes to task 100 well-known aphorisms that are frequently misused. Take this saying written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "What does not kill me, makes me stronger."

"What's been mistaken here is a resolution for a fact. As a simple statement of fact, that is not true," Baggini says. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are made much weaker by their misfortunes. It can crush them. It can destroy you. There is nothing inevitable. But Nietzsche didn't mean it as a universal law of nature. ... In his context, the person saying that is making an affirmation. They are saying, 'I resolve that when misfortune strikes me, I will take that misfortune and try and use it to make me stronger.'"

"The whole point of the book was that, like so many phrases and proverbs, we trot out these things, we say them as though they were just established truths, we all know what they mean and so forth," Baggini says. "But what I wanted to do is to get people to look at them again. Because if you think about these proverbs and sayings, one of the odd things about them is there's a kind of law which is, 'Every proverb has an equal and opposite proverb.'" For example:

"He who hesitates is lost" vs. "Everything comes to he who waits."

"No pain, no gain" vs. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" vs. "Out of sight, out of mind."

Some aphorisms are simply inaccurate. We may understand the meaning of the phrase "Lightning never strikes the same place twice," but we also know that the literal meaning of the phrase does not hold up to scrutiny.

Baggini points to the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an event that we shouldn't count on as a one-off. "Unless you sort of learn the mistakes of that, then what will happen is that lightning will probably strike again if not in exactly the same place, in this case, in the same kind of situation," he says.

"We latch onto metaphors and a lot of proverbs and sayings become common usage because there's something compelling about them," Baggini says. "There's something about them which speaks to us. But the same thing which captures our imaginations and makes the phrases memorable can also be a kind of thing that leads us astray if we fail to notice the ways in which it's misleading or not quite accurate."

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