January 29, 1998

Erasmus collected a great many adages, expressions, and proverbs from classical literature and published them in a monster book called the Chiliades Adagiorum ("Thousands of Adages"). He published the first volume in 1502, and continued adding to it right up until 1532. The final version had over four thousand entries. In doing so, he popularized many expressions that have remained in our language to this day. Some of them, I’m sure, would have made it without Erasmus’ help, but a great many owe their currency to his work. I have collected here some of the more interesting ones. My criteria for selection are intrinsic interest or modern currency.

To start from scratch
A cough for a fart [To attempt to cover up an error]
A flash in the pan
No sooner said than done
Neither with bad things nor without them [Women: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em]
Shadow not substance
To be a target for the middle finger [Yes, that obscene gesture goes way back]
Eyes in the back of his head
Rudely and plainly [Erasmus explained: “Speak with less refinement and you will be better understood. ...Even to this day, some professors of philosophy and theology, while teaching things in no way beyond the capacity of a woman or a clown to utter, wrap up the question in obscure phraseology and monstrous big words.”]
Crocodile tears
Don’t pee facing the sun
Stem and stern
Nothing like Parmenio’s pig. [The story behind this is cute. A Greek village had an annual festival, the main event of which was a pig-mimicking contest. The local champion was Parmenio, whose pig call was wonderfully porcine; everybody agreed that this was the best pig oink they’d ever heard. So one year a fellow shows up at the contest with a piglet hidden under his cloak. When his turn came, he opened his mouth and pinched the pig, who squealed. The audience admitted that his performance was good, but it was "nothing like Parmenio’s pig", which was still the best. At this point the stranger revealed his hidden pig.]
Between a stone and a shrine. [rather like our ’between a rock and a hard place’]
On the razor’s edge
One hand washes the other
You’re on entirely the wrong track.
You made this dish and you must eat it
To drive one nail out with another
Owls to Athens [our version is ’coals to Newcastle’ -- same thing only modernized]
Doctoring is better first than last
From head to heel
Wings on one’s feet
Fortune favors the brave
Like teaching an old man a new language [like our "Can’t teach an old dog new tricks"]