7 proverbs and expressions that Granny used to use

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Posted on 
September 16, 2019

Languages are rich because they carry within them the culture and history of the people who speak them. They are kept alive when expressions are passed on from one generation to the next, and they have the power to rekindle memories. I was fortunate enough to know my great-grandmother, who never said much but often spoke in proverbs and expressions. Here are some of her sayings, along with their meanings:

1. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear.

If someone refuses to listen, it’s pointless to hope for a solution to the problem. This is the proverb that I quote most often, especially in interviews when I’m asked situational questions involving a difficult employee or manager. In Quebec, there’s a similar proverb: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."

2. Better take him to the movies instead of a restaurant.

This saying refers to someone with a big appetite. Granny would use it when she watched my brother eat. Given the food available in movie theatres today, this proverb is debatable, but we still use it jokingly in my family.

3. It’s better when it’s not weighed.

We appreciate something more when we haven’t paid for it. We think that Granny was referring to something stolen and not just given. She wasn’t a thief, but she experienced deprivation under Nazi occupation, and she probably had to steal food to feed her husband and two children.

4. She doesn’t have both feet in the same clog.

This expression refers to someone who is very resourceful. In Brittany, where I come from, people wore wooden clogs until the middle of the 20th century, which explains the choice of words. Quebeckers use the same expression, but they say “boot” instead of “clog.”

5. It’s better for them to be together than to spoil things for two other people.

Granny avoided speaking ill of people directly and preferred to use euphemisms, like this expression. Referring to a mean or unpleasant couple, she meant that at least they weren’t ruining the lives of two good people.

6. Does a sick person want to be well?

When Granny was offered something she particularly liked, this was her way of saying "Yes, of course!" For example:

My uncle: “Want a chocolate cookie, Granny?”
Granny: “Dear, does a sick person want to be well?”

This is one of the proverbs I imported into Canada, and the people within my circle are starting to use it!

7. The dead are dead only when people stop talking about them.

This is the proverb that Granny would use with a lump in her throat, because she lost her husband and son very young. In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, author David Eagleman says something similar: it’s only when your name is spoken for the last time that you truly die. I quoted this proverb at my grandfather's funeral and made the congregation laugh by telling an anecdote about him. I then asked my family and friends to keep talking about him so that he could go on living in another way. It’s a practice that I follow on a daily basis and a proverb that’s close to my heart.

What about you? What family proverbs do you particularly like, and why?

Translated by Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada

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About the author

Ana Conan

Ana has managed to combine her passion and her work by joining the team responsible for public facing content at Employment and Social Development Canada, where she simplifies texts intended for Canadian citizens receiving employment insurance benefits. On her blog, she posts humorous stories about her life in the National Capital Region and also writes about more serious and emotional topics such as grief, bullying and health issues. Her co-workers have dubbed her the grammar police, and she carries out that role with great pleasure.

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