A Treatise about Frogs: On the Boiling, Swallowing, Eating, and Metaphorizing of Such

January 19, 2019 § 2 Comments

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A Frog in Every Pot

A frog likes water, but not hot water — Swahili proverb

You’ve heard it said that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put it in cool water that you slowly bring to a boil, the frog won’t notice and will eventually die. It’s supposed to demonstrate how people often find themselves victims of tragic circumstances that are introduced incrementally—and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Whenever I hear this frog story, I think of two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Why in the world would you boil a live frog?

The answers should be simple, right? Well, think again.

German physiologist Friedrich Gotz comes close to answering both questions with experiments he conducted 150 years ago, publishing the results in 1869. According to the English philosopher, literary critic, and scientist George Henry Lewes, writing in Nature in 1873, Gotz was testing for the presence of a “spinal soul” in frogs. To that end, he placed a frog in water that was slowly heated. At 25º C (77º F), the frog “manifest[ed] uneasiness” and as the heat increased, “vainly struggl[ed] to get out.” This was in contrast to another frog, exposed to the same conditions, from which Gotz had previously removed its brain. As the water grew warmer, the brainless frog, while responding to other stimuli, “never once attempt[ed] to escape the impending death,” which came about at 56º C (132.8º F).

Put a tally down for “not true,” since the first frog would have gotten out if it had been allowed to, and the second one expired under less than normal circumstances.

In the years that followed, several scientists, in several countries, replicated Gotz’s experiments, with some verifying, and some contradicting his results. In his “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” MIT professor William Thomas Sedgwick gave a summary in 1888 of the research. He writes that J. Tarchanow (Russia, 1871) and M. Foster (England, 1873) show that normal frogs try to escape gradually heated water, while A. Heinzmann (Germany, 1872) and Carl Fratscher (Germany, 1875) show that a gradual increase in temperature results in the frogs’ death. Sedgwick concludes that the differences in results come down to the definition of “gradual.” While a gradual increase in the heat of the water may cause a frog to at least try to escape, a “sufficiently gradual” increase will not.

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In a more modern look at the situation, in 1995, Fast Company consulted George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, and Harvard University Biology Department’s Doug Melton. The two agree that the science behind the boiling-frog metaphor is complete bunkum (with Zug using more colorful language). First, they say, frogs put in boiling water will not jump out, they will simply die (I’ve ignored this half of the scenario until now). Second, a frog won’t sit still long enough to be boiled in slowly heated water.

Australian science broadcaster Karl Kruszelnicki jumped in in 2011 with his own rebuttal of the yay-sayers. Not only does he quote University of Oklahoma herpetologist Victor Hutchison, who declares, “The legend is entirely incorrect!” he also points to a book written by Yale’s Edward Wheeler Scripture in 1897, using it to refute one of the earlier experiments. In The New Psychology, Scripture writes about research (he lists Heinzmann, Fratscher, and Sedgwick as possible sources) in which the water containing the frog was heated at the rate of .002º C per second over 2 1/2 hours. Kruszelnicki does the math for this example and finds it impossible. But in the interesting and well-sourced post “The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” a self-described “second-generation Asian INTP male expatriate” disputes Kruszelnicki’s disputation. He writes that Scripture’s reference is to an experiment by Heinzmann, and a look at Heinzmann’s original text shows that Scripture got the facts wrong.

So here’s my conclusion. Will frogs jump out of boiling water? No. Will they die in water gradually heated to boiling? Um . . . maybe.

We’ll probably never have a definitive answer for the boiling-frog metaphor, as slowly boiling live frogs is frowned upon in today’s general community. It is interesting to note, that it was not so popular even back in the days of Gotz, et. al. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, published in 1876, records the response of the aforementioned Lewes, to the questions, “But would you give us an instance or two of the most distressing experiments that you have performed? Have you ever performed Goltz’s experiment of boiling a frog till it died?” Lewes answers, “No; but to disprove his conclusion, I dipped a frog [from which the brain had been removed] in boiling water.”

At the same proceedings, British physician Arthur de Noé Walker gives examples of what he considers inhumane experiments, “in the hope of convincing [the commission] how urgently legal interference is called for in order to check and control the practice of performing experiments on living animals.” One such experiment was performed by the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who created gastric fistulas in dogs and inserted live frogs into the openings to observe their responses to the gastric juices. Not only was this cruel, he explains, but it was also “against the order of nature.” “Dogs do not swallow live frogs,” he says, “and frogs do not jump down into the stomachs of dogs.”

This last one sounds like a horrible experiment, but it does serve as a nice segue into my next topic.

(The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs, Wolfgang Mieder, ed., MJF, 1986; George Henry Lewes, “Sensation in the Spinal Cord,” Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, vol. 9, December 4, 1873; William Thomas Sedgwick, “On Variations of Reflex-Excitability in the Frog, Induced by Changes of Temperature,” Studies from the Biological Laboratory of the Johns Hopkins University, vol. 2, Murray, 1888; “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant?” Fast Company, November 31, 1995; Edward Scripture, The New Psychology, Scribner’s 1897; The Boiling Frog Tale Is Not a Myth,” INTP things, November 16, 2017; Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, George Edward Eyre and William Spottiswoode, eds., 1876)

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Got a Frog in Your Throat?

As odd as it may seem, some people like to swallow frogs—live and whole and with no boiling necessary. Take, for instance, Englander George Augustus Sala, who thought it not unnatural at all for frogs to hop into someone’s stomach. He wrote in 1863,

When you were a little boy at school, you probably ate a good many frogs. Our practice was, when we had caught them, to pinch our nostrils with the fingers of one hand, and holding the dapper little froggee lightly with the other, to allow him to jump down our throats. There was a tradition among us that to swallow live frogs (for the process could not be called eating) made a boy strong and valorous, and almost insentient to the cuts of the cane. As we advanced in years we took a distaste for frogs. We were patriots. We grew to hate frogs because we heard that the French liked them and that they formed a principal item in the diet of that vivacious and ingenious people.

But frog swallowing hasn’t been limited only to the young. The Hungarian-born illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini writes about the “repulsive” frog swallowing performers of his day, finding only one, a Frenchman named Norton, “who presented his act in a dignified manner.” The two performed on the same program at the Circus Busch, Berlin, which gave Houdini a front-row seat. He recounts one instance where the act didn’t go quite as planned:

Norton could swallow a number of half-grown frogs and bring them up alive. I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.

Modern-day American magician and escapologist David Blain does not share Houdini’s disgust. In fact, he’s devoted much effort into honing his frog gurgitation and regurgitation skills.

Mr. Sala, Mr. Blaine, and Norton’s practices aside, most people see only the negatives of frog swallowing. Take, for instance, the women of northeast Brazil. When they refer to the pain of holding in anger and resentment and quietly tolerating unfairness, they call it “swallowing frogs.”

And wasn’t it Mark Twain who said,“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”? Actually, no.

Though the saying is often attributed to the American author, Garson O’Toole, of the Quote Investigator, tells us that a similar phrase predates Twain by many years. It appeared in French in the 1790s, with the publication of writer Nicolas Chamfort’s Oeuvres de Chamfort (Works of Chamfort). In 1851, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve published Causeries du Lundi (Monday Chats), which included the relevant passage by Chamfort, translated into English. In it, Chamfort refers to M. de Lassay, whom he uses as his “mouthpiece” in his writings:

Nature, in overwhelming us with misery and giving us an unconquerable attachment to life, seems to have behaved to man like an incendiary who sets fire to our house, after placing sentries at our doors. The danger must be very great to oblige us to leap out of a window.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

I’ve also seen no evidence that Mark Twain ever said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

(George Augustus Sala, Breakfast in Bed; or, Philosophy between the Sheets: A Series of Indigestible Discources, Bradburn, 1863; Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc. Dutton, 1920; L. A. Rebhun, “Swallowing Frogs: Anger and Illness in Northeast Brazil,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1994; Garson O’Toole, “Eat a Live Frog Every Morning, and Nothing Worse Will Happen to You the Rest of the Day,” Quote Investigator, April 3, 2013; Nicolas Chamfort, Oevres de Chamfort, tome 4, 1795; Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, vol. 7, E. J. Trechmann, trans., Routledge, 1851)

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Tastes like Chicken

It’s not that Twain was averse to eating frogs, per se. It’s just that they needed to be prepared the right way (and I assume he preferred only the hind legs.) In his account of his travels through Europe, A Tramp Abroad, Twain writes that during his trip he longs for the familiar food of the States:

It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows. . . .

He then goes on to provide a lengthy menu of his favorite foods, beginning with “Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs. American coffee, with real cream. American butter,” and “Fried chicken, Southern Style. . . .”

Of course, the French like their frog legs, too. And while they do eat their share of cuisses de grenouille, they’re far from alone.

According to the global study “Canapés to Extinction,” the EU is the largest importer of frog legs, followed by the US, Canada, and Japan—though when only countries are ranked, the US comes out on top. In the EU, France isn’t even the leading nation. That distinction goes to Belgium, and by a wide margin.

And it’s not just the legs of frogs that find their way onto tables worldwide. Here’s a sampling: The “wildlife trade specialists” at TRAFFIC, report that frogs are “an important food source” in West Africa, where they’re dried or fried whole—with or without disemboweling—for consumption. A dish in Indonesia is pepes telur kodok, frog eggs cooked in banana leaves. And a search on the internet will garner videos of a Japanese woman eating “live” frog sashimi (sushi), a woman in China chewing frogs whole, and another woman in China spoon feeding her toddler tadpoles. Who needs a circus when you have YouTube.

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So where do all these frogs come from? Back to frog legs, the top exporters are Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in that order. The world’s leading suppliers used to be India and Bangladesh, but over harvesting decimated their frog populations, leading the two countries to ban frog exports in the late 80s. It is feared, say the writers of “Canapés to Extinction,” that Indonesia may be headed to the same fate.

I would guess that if the residents of a country, such as Indonesia, were to wake up one day and all their frogs were gone, they would bemoan not only the loss of income, but also the absence of the frogs’ role in controlling mosquitos and agricultural pests. But as long as the decrease in the frog population is slow, it’s hard for them to recognize how bad things are getting—maybe even until there’s no turning back.

Hmmmm, that reminds me of a story.

(Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, American, 1880; Sandra Altherr, Alejandra Goyenechea and D.J. Schubert, “Canapés to Extinction: The International Trade in Frogs’ Legs and Its Ecological Impact,” Pro Wildlife, 2016; M. Mohneke, et al., “Dried or Fried: Amphibians in Local and Regional Food Market in West Africa” TRAFFIC Bulletin, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010; 

[photos: “Big Red,” by Matt MacGillivray, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Mike Maguire, used under a Creative Commons license; “Frog,” by Jon Wiley, used under a Creative Commons license; “kermit’s legs,” by Chewy Chua, used under a Creative Commons license; “Dried Frogs,” by Shawn Harquail, used under a Creative Commons license]

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“Wherever You Go, There You Are” and Other Such Words of Wisdom

August 6, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Somewhere, in one of the back rooms of the internet, sits a frazzle-haired, bespectacled gentleman thumbing through a box of yellowed index cards. On each card is typed out a well-known saying, often in multiple versions, and it’s the man’s job to assign to each one a source. He doesn’t track down the actual origin, but rather he writes down who it sounds as if might have come from. To do this, he refers to a wall chart over his desk that shows a spectrum of names, ranging from the profound—Confucius—to the nonsensical— Yogi Berra—with prominent figures filling in the space in between. His assignments go out to the many and sundry quotation sites around the world wide web. After he’s worked his way through all the cards, he refills the box and starts again. His is the Office of Misattribution.

Even with such an imprecise methodology, it seems odd that a single quotation could be assigned to both ends of the authorial range: Confucius and Yogi Berra. But at least one phrase has that distinction:

Wherever you go, there you are.

(also with the versions “No matter where you go . . .” and “Wheresoever you go . . .”)

First off, I’ll say that I’ve seen no real evidence for its origin. (As I’ve written before, it’s the kind of thing my father would attribute to Shakespeare, but he was just kidding.) Google searches most often show it belonging to Confucius, or, more specifically, coming from the The Analects of Confucius. But when I go to The Analects, I don’t find it, nor anything close. I’m thinking that those who claim Confucius as the source would lean toward explaining the meaning of the phrase as “You can’t escape yourself. No matter your new location, you will bring your past, your faults, your regrets with you.”

Those who would claim the saying belongs to Yogi Berra would probably think it’s simply stating the obvious: “You are where you are.” But I’m pretty sure Berra, who subtitled a book “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” didn’t create it either. He was, though, in the same ballpark, so to speak, when he came up with

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

In another perspective on the theme, the popular spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle talks about intentionally being present in the moment, when in his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, he says:

Ordinary unconsciousness is always linked in some way with denial of the Now. The Now, of course, also implies the here. Are you resisting your here and now? Some people would always rather be somewhere else. Their “here” is never good enough. Through self-observation, find out if that is the case in your life. Wherever you are, be there totally.

The Christian missionary and martyr Jim Elliot wrote something similar 47 years earlier in his journal:

Wherever you are, be all there.

To this, he added, “Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

The idea behind these last two selections reminds me of the phrase

Bloom where you are planted.

Who originally said that? According to the internet, it might be Mary Engelbreit, Paul Harvey, Mother Teresa, Cory Booker (with blossom instead of bloom), Nardi Reeder Campion’s Aunt Grace, Nancy Reader Campion’s Aunt Grace, St. Francis of Sales, an Afghan proverbist, or someone in the Bible. The Office of Misattribution certainly has been busy on that one.


(Yogi Berra, When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!: Inspiration and Wisdom from One of Baseball’s Greatest Heroes, 2001; Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Namaste, 1997; Elisabeth Elliot, ed., The Journals of Jim Elliot, Revell, 1978)

[photo: “Compass,” by Walt Stoneburner, used under a Creative Commons license]

Man Proposes, God Disposes: One Man Said It, Another Painted It

February 21, 2018 § Leave a comment

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I hope that none of your your travels turn out like what’s depicted in the artwork above. The oil painting, completed by Edwin Henry Landseer in 1864, shows two polar bears ravaging what’s left of Sir John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, a sailable path through the Arctic Ocean from Europe to India and China. Franklin set out in 1845 with two ships and their crews, totaling 134 men. Three years later, the ships became stuck in the ice of the Canadian Arctic and all had to set out on foot (except for five who had been sent home shortly after the voyage began). After walking away from their vessels, named the Erebus—after Greek mythology’s personification of darkness—and the Terror, none survived.

The explorer John Rae, in 1854, came across some Inuit who were carrying personal items  from the Franklin expedition. They had collected them from abandoned campsites, where they had also found signs of cannibalism amongst the crew.

The title of the painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, says something about the sometimes harsh intersection of humanity’s plans with divine governance. But the artist’s intention may have had less to do with theology and more to do with portraying the hubris of an English society that felt nothing could stand in the way of its forward progress.

Even though the men of the Franklin expedition seemed well-prepared, many today call the trek “doomed” from the beginning. The New York Times Magazine reports that the two ships carried enough food for three years, including “32,289 pounds of preserved meat, 1,008 pounds of raisins and 580 gallons of pickles.” But that may have been as much a curse as a blessing.

In 1850, a search party of Americans and British found three graves on Beechey Island, Canada, containing the bodies of three crew members who had died in 1846. Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie, in 1984, dug up the graves and performed autopsies on the bodies. He found they contained high levels of lead, leading him to believe that the crew had been poisoned by their food, stored in tins with lead solder.

Four years ago, underwater archaeologists with Parks Canada discovered the Erebus at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf. Ryan Harris, lead diver of the group, says that the mission’s fate was already sealed from the day they set out, not because of errors from its leader, but by poor planning from those above him. ‘‘Franklin and his men were doomed the moment they received orders from the admiralty. He followed those orders to a T and into the worst choke point in the Arctic Archipelago,” Harris tells The New Yorker Magazine. “The notion that Franklin was anything but a sterling naval officer I just can’t accept. He followed his orders faithfully and died.’’

Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes now hangs in the College Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway, University of London, where it can be viewed throughout the year, except during exams. At that time, the painting is covered with the Union Jack, as legend says that students who look at the image will fail their tests . . . or slip into madness.

That tells us about the subject of Landeer’s painting, but where did the title come from? The phrase “Man proposes, God disposes” is not original to the artist (and it doesn’t come from the Bible, either, as many assume—at least not directly). Rather, it first appeared in The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. The relevant passage is in book 1, chapter 19, titled “Of the Exercise of a Religious Man,” which discusses a Christian’s consistency in keeping daily devotions. While Landseer’s use of “Man proposes, God disposes” is a look back on failed plans, Thomas à Kempis’s usage has a somewhat different bent, more of a call to rely on God’s help to reach a plan’s fulfillment.

The life of a Christian ought to be adorned with all virtues, that he may be inwardly what he outwardly appeareth unto men. And verily it should be yet better within than without, for God is a discerner of our heart, Whom we must reverence with all our hearts wheresoever we are, and walk pure in His presence as do the angels. We ought daily to renew our vows, and to kindle our hearts to zeal, as if each day were the first day of our conversion, and to say, “Help me, O God, in my good resolutions, and in Thy holy service, and grant that this day I may make a good beginning, for hitherto I have done nothing!”

According to our resolution so is the rate of our progress, and much diligence is needful for him who would make good progress. For if he who resolveth bravely oftentimes falleth short, how shall it be with him who resolveth rarely or feebly? But manifold causes bring about abandonment of our resolution, yet a trivial omission of holy exercises can hardly be made without some loss to us. The resolution of the righteous dependeth more upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; for in Him they always put their trust, whatsoever they take in hand. For man proposeth, but God disposeth; and the way of a man is not in himself.

While the wording “Man proposes, God disposes” (“Nam homo proponit, sed Deus disponit in Latin), is not found in the Bible, the idea behind it is.

There is Proverbs 16:9 (NIV),

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

and Proverbs 19:21 (NIV),

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Also, the phrase following “Man proposes, God disposes” in Imitation of Christ, comes from Jeremiah 10:23, in the King James Version:

O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.

Let me repeat, I hope that none of your travels turn out like what’s depicted in Landseer’s painting.

Instead, as you resolve to explore new territories, whether that be through outward excursions or inner searchings, may you be hemmed in as gently as  possible, when necessary. And when you’re striving down the right path, may God’s grace strengthen you to continue on.


(Leanne Sharpton, “Artifacts of a Doomed Expedition,” The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2016; Laura MacCulloch, “The Haunted Painting of Fabled Franklin Ship Discovered in the Canadian Arctic,” The Conversation, September 11, 2014; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by William Benham [1886], ca 1420)

[artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864, public domain]

 

Lost in Mistranslation: It’s Always Darkest before. . . When?

June 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

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Political commentator Bill Kristol, speaking earlier this year at a Harvard forum titled “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” had some good things and some bad things to say about the state of modern media. For the most part, he said, he’s optimistic; but he understands the need for caution, closing his talk with this:

I ran into John McCain this morning, actually, at National Airport—he was coming in from somewhere, I was flying out. I asked him how things were going, and he responded with one of his favorite quotations. I think it’s a fake quotation, actually—he really said it to me, but I think his description of it is fake. He said, “As Chairman Mao always liked to say, ‘It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black.’”

I’ll cast my lot with Kristol: I think McCain is misquoting Mao Tse-tung. And McCain probably knows it, too, but that hasn’t stopped the senator from Arizona from making it one of his go-to lines. In fact, he used it so much during his 2008 presidential campaign that it caught the attention of China’s news outlet Huanqiu.com. An author there, Wang Qichao, writes that McCain’s catch phrase is no more than a parody of what Chairman Mao really said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Now that’s an expression I’m familiar with. But is it truly a Mao-made metaphor? According to Wang, it comes from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (also known as The Little Red Book). But I’m thinking this may be one of those cases where a well-known saying is misattributed to the kind of well-known figure who gets credited for most everything quote-worthy (think Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US).

In the article, Wang writes that Mao’s saying is “黎明前的黑暗,” which is a Chinese idiom that translates as “darkness before dawn.” The closest thing from Mao I could find in Quotations is “黑暗即将过去,曙光即在前头,” which originally comes from a report given by Mao, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” in 1947. Here’s the relevant passage in English, with the specific phrase in bold:

The Communist Party of China, having made a clear-headed appraisal of the international and domestic situation on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism, recognized that all attacks by the reactionaries at home and abroad had to be defeated and could be defeated. When dark clouds appeared in the sky, we pointed out that they were only temporary, that the darkness would soon pass and the sun break through.

Regardless of how close either of these may be to “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” a form of that phrase predates Mao by a few hundred years. Back in 1650, preacher and historian Thomas Fuller wrote,

[I]t is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

The phrase appears in the following:

Afterwards, whilest David was marching (at least wise in presence) with Achish against Saul, the Amalekites in his absence burnt Ziglag, carrying away all the people therein captive. Griefe hereat so prevailed in Davids men at their return, that in anguish of their hearts, they were ready to stone him. Could better be expected from them? Behold their originall, they were at first, men in debt and distress, whose severall discontents made them generally contented to join together; so that not David, but his necessities chose them to attend him, who now in adversity discovered their impious dispositions. But David to avoid this showre of stones ready to rain upon him, run for shelter to God his Rock, in whom he comforted himself. Thus, as it is always darkest just before the Day dawneth, so God useth to visite his servants with greatest affli∣ctions, when he intendeth their speedy advancement. For immediate∣ly after, David not onely recovered his loss with advantage, but also was proclaimed King of Israel: though some war arose for a time between him and Ishbosheth.

It’s an interesting saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

Scientifically speaking, is just before dawn the darkest part of the night? That depends on when you say dawn begins. Certainly, at midnight, it stops getting darker as soon as it starts getting lighter.

But the phrase’s deeper meaning, at least the way we use it today, is that we shouldn’t give up, no matter how grim the circumstances. Victory is undoubtedly ahead. The trouble with this thinking is that it’s self defining: If things get worse, then you’ve not yet reached the darkest point. If they get better, then the worst has ended. And if you surrender, then you can’t know that the sun wasn’t about to rise.

Does darkness sometimes signal a coming dawn? Yes, I believe it does. But always? It’s not quite that simple. As memorable as they may be, six words aren’t enough to handle all the philosophy and theology needed for that topic.

Stay tuned: On August 21 of this year, many in the US will see the first total eclipse observable on American soil since 1979. I wonder what McCain will have to say about that.

(Bill Kristol, “Bill Kristol: Remember, Demagogues Thrived Long before the Internet Disintermediated the News, Too,” Nieman Lab, February 1, 2017; Wang Qichao, “McCain Repeatedly Misquotes Chairman Mao,” translated by Mark Klingman, WorldMeets.us, August 7, 2008, Chinese version at Sina.com; Mao Tse-tung, “敢于斗争,敢于胜利,” 毛主席语录, People’s Press, 1965; Mao Tse-tung, “Dare to Struggle and Dare to Win,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966; Mao, Tse-tung, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1947; Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof with the History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon, 1650)

[photo: “Breaking Dawn,” by B Gilmour, used under a Creative Commons license]

Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say

April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

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I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of

Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good things.

He isn’t the only one who’s used fertilizer imagery to point out that missionaries tend to cause each other problems when they’re in close proximity to each other. But where did the missionary-manure comparison originally come from?

Well, one blogger cites a quotation from Luis Palau, in which the evangelist credits a Wycliffe missionary in Mexico for coming up with the phrase, after watching a cow walk by. But that doesn’t quite jibe with the testimonies of others (including Philip Yancey, in Church: Why Bother? [Zondervan, 1998]) who claim that Palau applied the simile to the church:

The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.

Comparisons of manure with types of people aren’t limited to only “missionaries” and “the church,” though all the ones I’ve been able to find do concern people who have an involvement with religion. Consider these examples:

The reference to “ministers” above is from a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, given in 1978, in which he says he heard the correlation to manure from a “distinguished theologian” twenty years earlier. That version is

Ministers are like manure: spread out in the field they have a certain usefulness. But when brought together in a heap, well, the odor gets pretty strong.

But a more precise earlier dating comes from the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California, volume 19, published in 1950. In it, the speaker refers to his “dear friend Lord MacMillan,” who tells about a Scottish minister who couldn’t bring himself to attend synod meetings, saying,

Ministers are like manure; when they are spread out over the land, they are very beneficial to the community.

But people aren’t the only things that are like manure. Nope, not just people. There’s

This last one is significant, because it deals with money, which leads us closer to the great-great-grandfather of the “is like manure” idea. But first lets take a look at a great aunt . . . from the mouth of Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In 1953, Thornton Wilder wrote the play The Matchmaker, a revision of his earlier work The Merchant of Yonkers, from 1938. In it, Dolly quotes her late husband, Ephraim:

Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.

In 1964, The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! which then became a movie in 1969. (The about in the above line becomes around in the musical versions.) This is probably where “money is like manure” gained the most attention in modern times, but it certainly didn’t originate there. Over a hundred years earlier (August 20, 1836, to be exact), Horace Greeley’s The New-Yorker included this “adage”:

Money is like manure, of no use until it be spread.

And now we get back to the oldest relative of the phrase—at least the oldest one that’s been found in print. It’s from Francis Bacon’s Of Seditions and Troubles, way back in 1625:

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

Where did Bacon come up with this? Well, in the same year, he also published Apophthegmes New and Old. Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. One of these apothegms (wow, I just looked that word up and found out I’ve been mispronouncing it) he ascribes to a Mr. Bettenham:

Mr. Bettenham used to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, upon an heape, it gave but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In a letter written to Thomas Hobby, Bacon references the death of his friend “Mr. Bettenham” (The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon [collected by James Spedding, 1868]). Assuming this is the same person from Apophthegmes, the saying would have to predate 1606, when Bacon penned the letter.

So all told, that’s a more-than-400-year history, which means my friend didn’t come up with the idea on his own. And neither did J. Paul Getty or Will Rogers or J. I. Packer or an acquaintance of  Francis Chan. No, the complete line of succession is not nearly so straightforward . . . or recent. Rather, to quote another quotable source, the venerable REO Speedwagon, it instead hews closer to (sing along with me)

Heard it from a friend

who heard it from a friend

who heard it from another. . . .”

And so it—usually—goes.

(for more research on the money-manure connection, see The Quote Investigator and The Big Apple)

[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stealing Cookies and Borrowing Stories

March 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently listened to a TEDx talk by Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, entitled “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” In it, he recites “The Cookie Thief,” a poem by Valerie Cox.

Wait a minute. Hadn’t I heard that a-stranger-stole-my-cookies-in-an-airport story before? In fact, several years ago, as I recalled, I had seen an actor on a late-night talk show telling how the thievery had happened to him . . . but maybe it had taken place in a train station. I was unclear on the details. I also couldn’t remember which show it was on, but I was pretty sure it was a British actor, since he called the cookies “biscuits.” It’s a funny story—with a great punch line—and I’ve retold it a few times. But is it true, or too good to be true? And regardless of its truthfulness, who can lay claim to its origin?

I did a little digging, and here’s what I found (with thanks to those who’ve dug before me). . . .

First of all, the British “actor” was actually a British author: Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and videos of his appearance on the web give the show date as February 14, 1985. Adams was there to promote his novel, written in 1984, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, “the fourth volume in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy.”

Letterman asked him if he used his own life experiences in his writing, which was, I’m guessing, a pre-planned question to set up what came next. Adams answered,

Yeah, well occasionally. Actually there’s one story I put in this book, which I fi— I wanted to put in print, because it’s something that happened to me a long time ago. And I’ve told the story pretty regularly now, with the result that other people are beginning to use it, so I wanted to put it in the book to say, “Hands off, guys.”

The gist of his story (minus Adams’ comedic flair) is this: At the train station, Adams buys a newspaper and package of cookies (biscuits). He puts his purchases down on a table and sits down across from a stranger. The man across from him opens the package of cookies and proceeds to eat one. Adams is perplexed, but saying nothing, eats a cookie himself. Back and forth they go, with Adams wondering how anyone could have such gall. Finally, the cookies are gone and the stranger leaves. When his train arrives, Adams picks up his newspaper to depart, and, much to his surprise, finds his unopened package of cookies lying there.

In 2001, Adams again recounted the story in a speech to Embedded Systems, saying that it had occurred in Cambridge in April of 1976. After Adams’ death in 2001, the Embedded Systems retelling was included in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a collection of Adams’ previously unpublished works.

So Adams’ story predates Cox’s “Cookie Thief,” which was published in 1996 in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. But his rendering is still not the beginning.

Jan Harold Brunvand writes in The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends that the biscuit/cookie story is one of many variations on “the unwitting-theft legend,” a general category for which he finds examples from as far back as 1912. Though the origins of Adams’ account don’t seem to be quite that old, they still precede his 1976 timeframe. Brunvand points to a letter written to the editor of the journal Folklore, in 1975. In it, A. W. Smith writes that he has seen the story in print three times, in July 1974, July 1972, and some indeterminate time earlier. The sources are, in that order, London’s GuardianOxfam News, and (possibly) London’s Evening Standard. Smith notes that in all these versions, the traveler is British (in Oxfam News he’s the director of Oxfam Scotland); the encounter takes place in a train station, near a train station, or in a dining car; the offending stranger is from another country, a West Indian, African, or Pakistani; and the foreigner kindly offers the Brit half of the last cookie. On the last two details, Smith asks, “Does the essence of the story concern the patient and indeed saintly character of the often despised and rejected?”

While Adams’ and Cox’s version leave out the cross-cultural aspect, Cox’s telling does include the stranger’s kind (but irritating) act of breaking the cookie in half.

Back to where we began, here’s Cox’s “Cookie Thief” in video form.

(Douglas Adams, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, NBC, February 14, 1985; Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Del Rey, 2005; Valerie Cox, “The Cookie Thief,” A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit; Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends,  Norton, 1984; A. W. Smith, “Letter to the Editor: Yet Another Modern Legend?” Folklore, vol. 86, issue 2, 1975)

[photo: “dark chocolate digestive BISCUITS,” by SimonQ, used under a Creative Commons license]

He Said, She Said: Believe in the Darkness What You Have Seen in the Light

November 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Zermatt, Switzerland

I began my post “In the Light, in the Dark, Remember,” with a quote from Joseph Bayly (1920-1986):

Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light.

I trust Phillip Yancey, who writes that Bayly said it, but I couldn’t find a specific citation and I was curious if it was original to him. Then I got a copy of Miriam Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, a collection of the missionary artist’s thoughts, paired with her watercolor paintings. This is the same Lilias Trotter that I wrote about back in July. In the book, I found these words:

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

When I saw this, I contacted Rockness, through the blog she writes about Trotter. When I asked her about the source of the quotation, she replied,

This is one of my favorite Lilias quotes. It was taken from her diary, 10 August 1901. She was taking a “break” from the heavy load in N.A. and, after having a reunion with her brother in Zermott (Switzerland) she sought a place even higher in the mountains to “be alone with God.” And, here, as always seemed to be the case for Lilias, God “spoke to her” through His Handiwork. She writes, “‘Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light’ – That was this mornings ‘first lesson’ – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.”

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing the “heavy load” that Trotter had experienced in North Africa:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

(In this post, Rockness shows the date for Trotter’s journal entry containing the darkness/light phrase as August 16, 1901.)

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter writes in a journal entry from 1897,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.” It “all depended,” she writes, “on what one had seen first.”


John Ruskin, Trotter’s good friend, and artistic mentor earlier in her life, had had his own encounter with the Swiss town of Zermatt (Zermott) years before. As a young man in 1844, he captured the scene there in the watercolor below.

zermatt

(Miriam Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in response section of “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license; John Ruskin, Zermatt, public domain, from artinthepicture.com]

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