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(Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)
(Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

I'm a collector of proverbs and phrases Add to ...

I collect spoken words. Some people like to collect fishing lures, first editions, bird sightings or sports cars. I hunt and gather the chance phrases I overhear on the street, in cafés, in my own kitchen.

These words-of-mouth include family sayings, turns of phrase, proverbs, bons mots (and not-so- bons but still memorable mots), and every clever, impromptu phrase our sons have uttered over the years.

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Our youngest, 7 at the time, announced at Hanukkah: "Dear family - I love you all very much so far." At the beginning of his science studies he told me, with some alarm, "Dad, did you know Mom is a mammal?" More recently, when I asked him what it was like being raised by artists, he said, "Inexpensively eventful." Every son or daughter of a storyteller, sculptor or actor would agree.

His older brother, in Grade 5, spoke on behalf of children around the world when he said, "It's play day! We're not supposed to learn anything!"

When he was 3, his mother was trying to put him to sleep by telling him a boring story in a monotonous voice. It was all about the animals in the barnyard going to sleep. "The piggies were getting sleepy … the cows were getting sleepy … the ponies were getting sleepy …" etc. etc.

I gather she listed quite a number of animals, but it didn't work. He lifted his head excitedly and said, "Then suddenly they heard footsteps!" So much for the soporific quality of her storytelling. His love of narrative suspense has carried over into his work as an actor and screenwriter.

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Once, commenting on our sons' reluctance to move with alacrity when it came to doing chores, my wife coined the term "molassity" - now part of our oral lexicon. And when things aren't going so well chez nous, we recall what we overheard a young mother tell her fretful baby in a park in Paris: " La vie est plein d'emmerdements." Life is full of little shittinesses.

I revel in the way such words-of-mouth can strike my ear and stick in my memory. All of this daily, speakable feast is duly recorded in what my kids call my Book of Quotes.

My father was a fount of sayings, many of them inherited from his days selling used cars in Detroit. Even after he became a French professor at the University of Toronto, he had a way of bringing them forth when the occasion called for a wise or pointed comment.

Our most famous one is: Get out of the car!

My father worked with an African-American man named Jerry Morgan. Mr. Morgan was always getting pulled over by the police (in "De-troit" we say "po-lice", and in my hometown in the 1950s, Driving While Black was a risky activity - and still is, my friends tell me) who would yell: "Get out of the car!" Mr. Morgan, unabashed, took this as his subversive life motto, applicable in both good times and bad - to express wonder at life's absurdities, to sing the blues, to talk about the joys of love. It became part of our family's folklore.

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And from the Southern Ontario side of the family comes the punchline, now a well-used saying: "You go ahead, Mary, I'll go back for the lantern." It comes from a story my in-laws tell about a nervous farmer who went with his wife to investigate a suspicious noise coming from their barn. At the last minute, our not-so-brave farmer turned back with that unforgettable phrase. We remember it in situations that call for courage, to remind ourselves how not to act.

Every family has its own mini-folk tradition, a private heritage of favourite sayings that connect us to the philosophy of our ancestors. An Italian friend told me that her grandmother used to say, "Grow old, red socks." It means that, at a certain age, you can wear anything you damn well please. Ever since I heard it, I've only worn purple socks.

"You can't dance at two weddings with one tuches," my Yiddish-speaking friend says, quoting her late father. A useful motto when it comes to making difficult choices.

"What's for you won't go by you," a teacher once said at a workshop I was leading. The zen-like quality of this has stayed with me. One of the most powerful things about traditional proverbs is that they can speak to us in different ways at different moments of our lives.

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Sometimes I catch a phrase that would require a novel to explain. I overheard a young woman at one of my favourite cafés (not that I was eavesdropping, of course, but you probably wouldn't want to sit next to me at a café) say to her companion, "Cause the reason was, my mom had another lover."

My ears grew bigger and my mouth grew smaller (as I once heard a Danish storyteller describe it). "Your mother's got another lover?" I wanted to ask the woman. "Isn't one enough?" But I was discreet, and simply noted it in my Book of Quotes.

We live in a time where voice, memory and the ability to listen are all under threat. Kids retell television episodes more than anecdotes or folk tales heard from their grandparents. Maybe that's what I love so much about the oral culture that still survives. Even in the miniature form of sayings and proverbs, this marvellously expressive language needs a speaker, a listener and its own timely moment. The love of the spoken word comes from societies where prime time means story time.

Speaking of which, a Ghanaian friend once told me, "The white man has the watches, but the black man has the time." We traded proverbs for a while (he liked this one from Southern Ontario: "Never say 'Whoa!' in a mudhole"). Then he told me one I remember every day: "If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk with friends."

Dan Yashinsky lives in Toronto.

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