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An Adventure in Pittsburghese

Pittsburg's Sayings and Proverbs


"Pittsburg's Sayings and Proverbs: Expressions Peculiar to the Smoky City and How Some of Them Have Arisen; Cosmopolitan Character of the Town Shown in Language of Inhabitants." By Maud Carrell. The Pittsburg Dispatch, 13 December 1910, Fifth Section, Page Seven.

A learned definition of a proverb is, "A short sentence or phrase in common use containing some trope, figure, homonymy, rhyme or other novity of expression," but most of us can give a much more practical definition than that in very few words. It is to us a condensation of common "horse sense." We Pittsburgers are apt to be struck by this commonsense put in quaint or attractive form or in some novel expression that tickles the fancy, and in that we are only following the example of the most learned among the ancients, among them the author of one of the best books of worldly wisdom extant, King Solomon.
I am inclined to think that in Pittsburg we are more addicted to the use of these scraps of wisdom than other cities. At any rate, keep count for yourself some day as you mingle with your fellow citizens in the downtown streets and shops and see how many you hear. We are fortunate in having among us the condensed wisdom of many ages, tribes, kindred and tongues, all of which are often translated into quaint and halting English.
The other day a prosperous Celtic-American was heard to remark over a porterhouse steak and strong American coffee, "He could eat my heart with garlic." Evidently he was referring to an enemy or business rival and it was uttered with a true Latin shrug. This certainly "hails" from the land of stilettos and old masters, and had an incongruous sound when unaccompanied by the atmosphere of garlic and spaghetti. This is one of the factors that is making of us a cosmopolitan city.

Origin of a Few Popular Sayings.
It will be a surprise to many people to know that from the imperial ancestors of these same manipulators of our Pittsburg clay come many of our most ordinary sayings in daily use. Here are four of them: "To draw blood from a turnip;" "I have a crow to pick with you;" "Cut your coat according to your cloth;" "A chip of the old block." Among their proverbs which are quainter and have not spread to general use are "Near is my petticoat, but my smock is nearer," meaning that some friends are nearer to them than others; those of their immediate family than other relatives. "The child told nothing but what he heard at the fire." The Italians do not say of a drunken man that he has a "souse" or a "skate" unless the Americanizing process is nearly complete. Instead they say, "He has a piece of bread and cheese in his head;" "He is as drunk as a wheel-barrow," or "The malt has got above the water."
In the matter of condensations concerning women, we must allow King Solomon the palm. His knowledge of his subject was no second-hand or superficial one, and yet he says that who findeth a wife findeth a good thing and obtaineth favor of the Lord, and no doubt he was ready to add that he who findeth 500 wives increaseth the good five hundred fold. This is mentioned to show how far and wide from the wisdom and patience of the King some of his race have strayed. This wisdom came out of the mouth of an ancient Pittsburger from Russia, who had a patriarchal beard that suggested a Rabbi and an unctious manner: "When an ass will to climb a ladder mine wife may get wisdom."

Some Admonishers.
Alas! No more complimentary are most of the others. Witness: "He lives under the sign of the cat's foot," meaning in plain English he is hen-pecked. "Women and dogs set men together by the ears;" "Women, swine and bees cannot be turned." But it must be owned that no race has a monopoly of the "mean" proverbs about women. Pittsburg women are still occasionally admonished by these, which have a thrifty Scotch twang and will make the modern club woman and the bridge and matinee woman smile broadly, so ingeniously is the sex of their authors revealed: "Women and hens, through too much gadding, are lost." "The wife that expects to have a good name is always at home as if she were lame." "An honest wife's chief delight is to be doing from morning till night."
Pure Pittsburg Scotch-Irish stock, untainted and ungrafted, has a rich heritage of homely sayings. When the impetuous Celtic strain predominates we may regard the old saws contemptuously, but if we are canny and Scotch we are apt to appreciate these nuggets of wisdom. "Drift is as bad as an unthrift." "Metal [sic] is dangerous in a blind horse." "Music helps not the toothache." "There will be moonshine in the mustard pot," meaning no doubt that if a man is improvident the larder will be empty. "Let not your tongue cut your throat." "A good name keeps its lustre in the dark." "Wedlock is padlock," and "Paid beforehand served behindhand." The proverbs about women are never complimentary, but this one, "A woman conceals what she knows not" at least gives us credit for more sense than most contemporary masculinity. We have also the rhyme:
"Fair and foolish, black and proud;
Long and lazy, little and loud."

"Women think place a sweet fish," and "As nice as a nun's hen."

Those Peculiar to Pittsburg.
There are many sayings current in Pittsburg which are peculiar possessions of families and are never heard outside. I heard a woman who is closely tied down by the cares of a large and growing family say one day, "Oh, my! I wish I was in God's pocket." When questioned, she said it was a family legacy and that both her mother and grandmother had used it. She said she had never heard it outside of the family and was not sure of its exact meaning, but she used it in the sense that to be in God's pocket would imply His special care and protection.
There are many that are distinctly racial and also many that seem to be the common property of all races, but have been given a special local twist. Here are some very expressive sayings in general use by the Job's comforter type of friend when a man has gone into a bad business venture or foolish undertaking. Their racial origin would be hard to trace, but the vigor of expression has an Anglo-Saxon sound: "He puts a rope to the eye of a needle;" "He is washing the crow;" "He is looking for wool on an ass;" "He fans with a feather;" "He is roasting snow in the oven" (the latter was used in reference to a man who had sold his house and lot in order to buy an automobile); "He is teaching iron to swim;" "He is building a bridge across the ocean."
The following are distinctly Hebrew in origin: "While the dust is on your feet sell what you have bought" is the expert advice of a race of merchants. "It is a bad sign when the cat and the weasel get married," means that it can only bode wrong to the innocent when evil men become warm friends.
Taken all in all the wisdom of Pittsburg in the shape of proverbs, whether locally born or inherited or acquired from imported Americans gives women some most awful "slams." Next come tailors and lawyers in the order named. The long list that is inimical to the tailors culminates in the saying common to most of the world as well as Pittsburg that a tailor is only one-ninth of a man. About lawyers the following are in use: "A good lawyer an evil neighbor;" "A wise lawyer never goes to law himself;" "In a thousand pounds of law there is not an ounce of love."
Now it is strange that these classes should be singled out for so much proverbial mud slinging. If you are a woman and think this over carefully I am sure that you will be ready to agree that this is the only real explanation. That men have been much slower than women to yield to the restraining influences of civilization. That lawyers and tailors and women are all representatives of restraining influences, hence the animosity that lingers still in our familiar proverbs--made by men. Any woman who has spent a tearful hour and exhausted persuasion and diplomacy trying to get a man to take a bath and a shave, don his evening clothes and accompany her to a swell function, has no doubt left in her mind that if women were removed from the world, masculinity in a body would make a bonfire of all their glad rags and maybe the tailors too, and rapidly revert to the prehistoric type of cave-man who wore one single abbreviated garment. So doubtless he would also dispense with law and lawyers and settle all disputes with his big club.
And as for women no wonder she heads his black list when it comes to proverbs. Does she not aid and abet both the lawyer and the tailor? Jointly with the lawyer she is responsible for great sums squandered in alimony and is she not the one really to blame for the disquieting tailors' bills as well as those from the milliner and dressmaker?







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