Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Wizard of Words

Erasmus Whether you are caught “between a rock and a hard place” or, living “on the razor's edge”, you owe it to one man for putting the words in your mouth. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1537) was one of the greatest scholars of the Renaissance. Using his vast knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, he culled the classics for tiny bits of wisdom to enlighten the reader and hopefully act as memorable guides to moral conduct.

This was not unusual at that time. Study of the classics was believed to improve not just the mind, but character as well. With the growing availability of cheap paper it became the practice of most people to jot down any scrap of information they might wish to remember in what became known as commonplace books. In education, students recorded important and insightful passages from their reading. They would later make use of these extracts as an aid in assigned compositions and as an indication of their learning.

The first edition of his book the “Adagiorum Collectanea ” or just, The Adages as it is known today, was first printed in Paris in 1500 and became an instant bestseller. This first edition contained only eight-hundred proverbs, but Erasmus continued to add to subsequent editions for the next thirty years, and by the time of his death it would total some four thousand entries. That’s some food for thought!

The following are just a few of the sayings we can trace directly back to his work:

To start from scratch.

A flash in the pan.

No sooner said than done.

Can't live with them, can't live without them.


Eyes in the back of his head.

Crocodile tears.

One hand washes the other.

You're on entirely the wrong track.

Can't teach an old dog new tricks.