Who Said That First? by Max Cryer
I have shelves full of collections of aphorisms, fables, proverbs, quotations, derivations, obscure words and other language and idiom esoteria (a word I have coined to denote groups of things esoteric - there is no such word but there should be).
I'm not sure the kind of information they offer is highly educative for writers or anyone else but like a lot of people I'm addicted to it; so I knew I needed to read Who Said it First?, especially when I read the blurb: "... this may be the only book to attempt to identify the original sources of common expressions."
I went straight to my collection in search of rebuttal - and found that Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase And Fable comes close and The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of Proverbs closer, but neither is quite there; so in the meantime the claim stands.
What I sought quickly were the origins of modern cliches such as "at this point in time", "axis of evil", "cried all the way to the bank" (no, it wasn't Liberace), "the buck stops here" (no, it wasn't Harry Truman) and "read my lips" (no, it wasn't George Bush pere).
I was pleased to find that, although Max says "I kid you not" may have been in use prior to 1951, it made its debut in print in Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny, a novel that so enthralled me when I read it back in the 1950s, I will never read it again in case it disappoints. I remember also the movie made from it, starring Humphrey Bogart as the naval commander who neurotically rolled little steel balls together in his pocket while proclaiming, "I kid you not ..."
I had taken it for granted that the injunction not to eat oysters in a month with no "r" was because of the danger to health posed by bivalves which are especially susceptible to taking up infectious organisms during the summer (in the Northern Hemisphere). Cryer says the advice first came from one William Butler in 1599 but adds "this may have less to do with safety than with flavour and conservation."
I didn't know oysters had inferior flavour in the summer, but then I'm not sure I eat them then.
In attributing "out of the frying pan into the fire" to Thomas More, he notes that More was "a brave man" but omits to mention he was also ruthlessly cruel.
But it is the incidental information and comment, stylishly presented, that make this book so engrossing; and, as anyone who knows his work would expect, Cryer brings a satisfying kind of orderly elegance to every sentence he writes.
Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland writer.