No News is Good News
Flip through the channels on any cable system in these United States and you will notice a recurring
theme-CNN, MSNBC, Headline News, Fox News, and on and on. Turn on the radio and you have the
news stations, go to your front porch and you'll find a copy of The Boston Globe, the New York
Times, or some other daily. Your local store has racks and racks of news magazines, and the most
popular sites on the Internet are dedicated to giving people up-to-the-second coverage of what is
going on! It seems as though we cannot get away from the news in the Information Age.
If you pay attention to this constant bombardment of information, you will notice that a large
portion of it is negative. Stories of war, famine, scandal, murder, crime, and other scars on the
human race crowd out the stories that tell all of the good that goes on. Why? Because the modern
adage "No News is Good News" is true. The news providers know that the population is titillated
with sordid details. In fact, there is a name for the "good news." It is called fluff!
What are the effects of this? It would be easy for someone reading or hearing the news to believe
that the world is a sad place. The inundation of negative reports are also self-feeding. People
eventually become numbed to the shock of war or murder to the point that they barely notice. In
addition, people no longer trust their political leaders-recent polls have the number of people
believing that government officials are honest and well-meaning below 40%.
This is one adage I wish were not true. I would like to see the purveyors of news be more fair in their
coverage and give us the feel-good stories most of the time. If that happened, our world would be
much happier. But it is unlikely to change-"No News is Good News" captures the state of mind our
culture is in right now, and people would likely turn off a news channel or stop reading a newspaper
that went to positive content. Maybe in the future, after war and crime have been exorcised from
society, this adage will seem like an artifact of history!
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Names
Will Never Hurt Me
Who was not told this as a child? It has been said so many times that it is often shortened to "Sticks
and Stones May Break My Bones…" with the last and most important part of the phrase left off!
Parents want their kids to grow up to be "thick-skinned," to avoid the insults, personal attacks, and
other negative influences that are likely to be directed at their child in elementary school and beyond.
They believe that if they repeat this enough, a child will believe it. In reality, very few ever believe it-we
all know the sting of someone calling us names or ridiculing us in some other manner.
Unfortunately, this childhood philosophy must now be moved to higher levels. In earlier, more polite
culture, people rarely talked ill of others directly on a personal level. Now, personal attacks have
become all too common. Anyone wishing to make a name for themselves in this world must expect a
barrage of negative attacks in print, over the air waves, and on the Internet. Tabloids attack movie
stars and even figures such as Mother Theresa. Some TV shows exist solely to point out the personal
problems of our government officials. No matter what you say or do, someone will hear about it. With
our new technology, it is likely that you do not even know them! And with that same technology, they
can instantly attack you on the national and international stage. With such openness, it is necessary
for us, as adults, to grow skin thick enough to ignore the negative attacks and accept constructive
Real Soon Now...
This is one of the lesser known adages currently in use. I first heard it a short time ago when one of
my friends was asked when a project he was working on would be finished. His response was "Real
Soon Now." Two years later, the project was complete!
There is a hint of sarcasm inherent in the statement "Real Soon Now." If someone responded with "I
will be done shortly" or "It shouldn't be much longer now," those expressions could be interpreted
literally. With "Real Soon Now," though, it has become accepted that what is being referred to is
nowhere near done. More than that, the speaker of the adage has no idea when it will be finished.
This expression should only be used with close friends. A report to your boss indicating that a crucial
project will be done "Real Soon Now" will likely get you fired. Telling your significant other that you
will commit to marriage "Real Soon Now" will likely lead to you being alone in life. A good example
of when to use the phrase is if a friend asks you "When are you going to finish building that deck
behind your house?" Your reply of "Real Soon Now" will likely lead to some laughter and, possibly,
an offer of help!
Kill Two Birds With One Stone
The phrase to "Kill Two Birds With One Stone" has been around for a while, but it has taken on new
meanings recently. The generic meaning of the phrase is to accomplish two tasks by performing one
action. For example, if your male friend has asked you to set him up with a nice woman, and your
woman friend asks you to set her up, you could arrange for them to meet. It is as if with a single wellaimed throw of a stone (the solution) you killed two birds (the problems). If you were less efficient (or
more original!) you would find a different woman for your male friend and a different man for your
Note that I used the phrase "if you were less efficient." This is why the adage has taken on a new
importance recently. With the fast paced world we live in, it has become increasingly necessary to
perform as many tasks as quickly as possible. By finding one solution that completes many tasks, you
can get done faster.
Open Mouth, Insert Foot
Once, the phrase "to stick one's foot in one's mouth" was common. It meant that someone had said
something that was inappropriate and, probably, embarrassing. For example, if you were at an
important dinner with a Microsoft executive and, in the course of telling a story, you accidentally
mentioned that you wished a couple of big companies were unfairly limiting competition, you would
have just "stuck your foot in your mouth."
Currently, a more original version of that saying has come into usage. It is "Open Mouth, Insert Foot."
Obviously, this alludes to the step-by-step how-to guides that exist for just about everything (from
using a computer to having sex). In addition, it can be said in a quicker and, perhaps, more witty
fashion. (Of course, as with all witty variations, it will shortly become passe-so watch out!)
The most important thing to remember is to never be on the receiving edge of the "Open Mouth, Insert
Foot" reference. Polite company will try to get you out of your uncomfortable situation. However, as
polite company has become more and more limited to the Vatican alone, you are likely to be made to
feel even more uncomfortable as those around you play up your foolishness! Even if they do not, you
are not likely to forget the uncomfortable feeling very quickly.
Don't Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch
It is all too easy to assume that everything in life is going to work out perfectly. Some people are so,
shall we say, "structured" that they plan their entire lives for years assuming that things will happen
exactly as they hope. For example, some MIT students begin planning at the beginning of their
freshman year what classes they will be taking through graduate school and then where they will end
up working. The problem is, once they fail one class or have a bad experience that leads them to
doubt their major, all of these plans fall apart.
This is where the adage "Don't Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch." Literally, it refers to the fact
that in any group of chicken eggs, some are not likely to be born. A foolish farmer would think "There
are ten eggs there, so I can expect to have ten chickens running around." According to the adage,
though, a more realistic farmer would wait until they were actually hatched and adjust his farming
plans based on how many were born. If any fail to hatch, the foolish farmer is caught off guard. The
realistic farmer already expects to adjust, so he is much better off.
In general, we should plan the future based on what we expect to happen. It is important, however, to
always be flexible. The MIT student mentioned above is wise to plan the classes they want to take.
They would be foolish if they did not have "contingency" plans. Unfortunately things do not always
work out as we want, so we must be prepared for anything.
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover
We live in a very superficial society. It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking only at the surface of
people, things, and ideas without taking the time and effort to delve deeper into them. This is where
the adage "Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover" comes from. Literally, you cannot tell the quality of the
contents of a book just by looking at the material used to hold it together. A book with a plain cover
and simple title may be more important, more entertaining, or more useful than a book bound in a
This metaphor can be extended to many situations in life. Perhaps the best example is the
relationships between people. If you see a beautiful woman (or man), would you immediately pursue
them before an average looking person? In many cases, a person looking for a significant other
would. Unfortunately, the more average person may have a better sense of humor and a more
interesting outlook on life. The prejudice of deciding what to do based solely on outward appearance
could cost the pursuer the chance of a meaningful relationship.
It is difficult to change being so superficial, though. Our sense of vision is very strong and it is easy to
fall in the trap of believing the most beautiful, shiny, or flashiest object is inherently "better." Only by
maintaining strict self-discipline can we force ourselves to put these prejudices aside and look deeper
into everything we do. Who knows? The more beautiful woman may turn out to be a better match for
you. But you will never know if you always base your decision on what looks the best. Only by looking
at the less obvious features can we know what is truly the most outstanding person, object, or idea.
And then we will know it with confidence.
It's Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel
Quick. Think of the least challenging event you can. Is one of them shooting fish in a barrel? Perhaps
not, but somehow this has become the standard metaphor for something that is so easy anyone could
do it with no problem. (It is similar to the adage "It's Like Stealing Candy from a Baby.)
Humans are inherently lazy. If we could have everything provided to us with no effort we would love it.
Fortunately, we are taught a work ethic as we are growing up and realize that we have to work for
most things in life. When something does occasionally come along that gives us something without
trying very hard, we usually take it. That is why something that is "like shooting fish in a barrel" is
usually looked upon as a good thing.
There is another side of human nature though. We are entertained and become more mature when
we have to work through problems to attain our goal. If I were just handed my degree from MIT
without having to struggle through the classes to learn important skills, what would be the point?
Everyone would know that an MIT degree was worthless-anybody could get one without effort. It is
the very fact that I have to work so hard to get the degree that it means something. In this way, if
getting an MIT degree were "like shooting fish in a barrel" it would become worthless.
So, saying that something is "like shooting fish in a barrel" does not necessarily convey any meaning
about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. The context must be analyzed. Even then, different
people may have different views of whether it is good or bad. Fortunately, adages are not always
unambiguous in their meaning! It makes life more interesting and gives me something to talk about...
A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned
America is, among industrialized countries, one of the worst at saving for the future. While Europeans
and Asians tend to save money for a rainy day, America likes to spend, spend, spend!
The adage "A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned," a favorite of Ben Franklin, encourages us to save
more money. The use of a penny in the adage suggests that even saving small amounts can lead to
prosperity in the future. Why, then, are Americans so unwilling to listen to this advice? I wish I knew
the answer. Our culture is very focused on living in the present, entertaining ourselves, and living
comfortably. We rarely think of the future unless we are complaining about the sorry state of Social
Security. This is something we need to change.
Some people have questioned the very sentiment of this adage. They argue that the penny has
already been earned whether it is saved or not. If the hamburger flipper at McDonald's makes $30 for
one day of service, then walks next door and buys $30 of sports equipment, have they really not
earned the money? Of course they have. They have just sunk it into a material product that probably
will not last very long.
Perhaps the way to best look at the adage today is to think of the interest that can be earned in our
capitalist society. If that same McDonald's worker put his $30 into a bank account with 3% interest, he
would make about eight cents. Of course, if he left the money there for several years without touching
it, the compounded interest would raise that amount. In this way, a penny saved really does earn a
penny, albeit after a significant amount of time!
Regardless of the literal correctness of the statement, the message to everyone, especially
Americans, is to save more money for the future. Enjoy life and be comfortable, but realize that you
also want to enjoy life and be comfortable in the years ahead even if something terrible happens.
All is Fair in Love and War
During times of real international conflict, military people must often justify their killing of other people
by believing "all is fair in love and war." The dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima has been
justified because the Japanese leaders were evil and would have done the same to us if they could
have. That is, dropping the bomb was "fair."
The phrase now, however, has entered into more popular culture to address more everyday conflicts.
If someone tarnishes my character in public, I will likely do something to tarnish his character for not
other reason than it is "fair."
The most interesting aspect of the adage is the combination of love and war. "All is fair in love" by
itself does not mean very much. Of course everything is fair in love-if I buy my wife a dozen roses to
express my love, who will argue that isn't fair? The complete adage, however, intertwines love and
war. It suggests that the conquest of a lover is similar to the conquest of an enemy. In some ways it isin both cases, the protagonist wants things to go his way and will go through any means to obtain it.
Whether the means are "outgifting" a potential mate or "outslandering" an opponent, both are
declared fair by the adage.
I have to disagree with the message of this adage. Someone declared that everything was allowed in
all attempts at conquest. This is a very selfish and short-sighted view of life. It may ease the minds of
the men going into battle to think that the deaths they cause are okay because, after all, it is war. It
may help a would-be lover to become a stalker because he believes it is a sign of his love. In both
cases, they are hiding behind the adage without having to think too hard about what they are really
doing. In fact, all IS NOT fair in love or war. Torture, stalking, and killing are never acts of fairness.
Even if they are acts of retribution, does that really make it "fair?" No.
Therefore, I suggest that this adage fall out of usage. It is a tool of the weak-minded to do what they
desire without thinking about the consequences.
The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side
Mr. Smith looks out his window and sees his neighbor's lawn. It looks so lush and well trimmed.
"Darnit," he thinks to himself, "why is does his grass always look so much better." Unbeknownst to
him, his neighbor is looking at Mr. Smith's orchard thinking "Darnit, why are the trees in his orchard so
much better at producing fruit?"
This fictional account exemplifies the meaning of the adage "The Grass is Always Greener on the
Other Side." It speaks to the fact that it is much easier for us to see what we do not have than what
we do have. Mr. Smith is busy thinking about how bad his lawn is without realizing that his orchard is
probably the best in the neighborhood. And his neighbor can only think about how much better his
own orchard could be without considering that his lawn is pristine.
It really is a sad commentary on human nature. If people would open their eyes and be content with
what they have, there would be so much less conflict and people would be much happier. Instead, we
spend much of our time trying to attain more and more. We must get away from this need.
People Who Live in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw
One of the favorite pastimes of many people is to criticize others. Some spend their entire lives finding
fault in the actions of their neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Unfortunately, many of the people
doing the complaining need look no farther than themselves to find fault.
This is where the adage "People Who Live in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones" come from. If
someone is open to the same type of crticism they are leveling, they shouldn't level it! Consider the
case of some of the politicians on Capitol Hill lambasting President Bill Clinton for having an affair.
When it was discovered that some of those who spoke out most against the president had their own
naughty predilections, they suddenly fell silent. The "stones" that they had thrown against the
president ended up destroying their own lies (their "glass houses"). Worse, the embarrassment they
suffered was much worse than if they had remained silent on the Clinton issue, because they were
shown to be a hypocrite in addition to all of the other terrible things they were!
If someone needs correcting for their actions, please try to do it in private and only after you have
fixed any such problems in your own life. That way, there will be much less shattered glass lying
Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick
This is one of my favorite adages, and I wish I could apply it more to my own life.
"Speak Softly But Carry a Big Stick" is unique because it rejects the strict passiveness some of the
greatest men in history have supported. Instead, it supports quietly wielding power most of the time
but being prepared to use force-whether figurative or literal-when it is necessary.
Theodore Roosevelt was a strong proponent of this way of thinking. On a more personal level, one of
the people I can think of who best exemplifies the adage is Hussein Waljee, a former president of
Zeta Beta Tau, Xi Chapter. As president, Hussein led quietly most of the time. He would talk one-onone with people and execute his plans without too much fanfare. When a big issue came up, though,
he used his leadership forcefully to help the Brotherhood recover. People were surprised by the
sudden show of strength from someone who had wielded his strength less publicly before. This
worked to his advantage, though-people knew he was serious and meant business.
Some misinterpret this statement to mean that one should be passive most of the time, becoming
violent when provoked. Instead, it means that you should be restrained and use what power you have
quietly. You will make more friends and seem less hot-headed and arrogant. The big stick, in fact, is
something that people should know exists but never see-they should be aware that you have more
power than you let on so that they are unwilling to provoke you to utilize it. That is one of the most
powerful positions to be in. And isn't that what life is all about-being in the most powerful position
possible without having too many enemies?
Don't Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth
Suppose you give your best friend a gift certificate for $10 to Borders book store. What would your
reaction be if their response was "Oh… thanks. But it's going to be hard to find something at Borders
for $10. Besides, there's not really much at Borders that I would want."? You would probably be rather
upset at this rudeness. In effect, your friend has just looked a gift horse in the mouth.
What does that mean? One way of telling how valuable a horse will be is to examine its teeth. If the
recipient of a horse as a gift first looks at it's teeth, it is obvious that he does not appreciate it for what
it was-a gift from a friend. Instead he is wondering exactly how it will benefit him. In this way, he
cheapens the friendship by putting some worldly value on it.
Of course, this adage is not limited to literal gift-giving. Often, there are situations in which a higher
power or blind luck can be seen as giving a "gift" to someone. Say, for example, that a man runs into
the woman he has always been too afraid to talk to and she says "Hi." Let's also say that he then
realizes that she is a complete air-head and he shouldn't have wasted all of his time on her. Instead of
thinking how great it was luck freed him from wasting his time in the future, he may only be able to
focus on the amount of time that he did waste.
This boils down to how hard it is to unconditionally appreciate many of the things that are given to us.
I warn you to take this adage to heart and try to avoid letting it happen to you-appreciate what you get
and you'll find you are a much happier person! (Not to mention that you'll keep the friends or
acquaintances that gave you the gift, and may even receive gifts in the future.)
The Check is in the Mail
This is a relatively modern adage. It is unusual in that it is often used in the literal sense. That is,
whenever someone is pestered to pay a bill they respond that "the check is in the mail." Often, this is
a complete lie but they are trying to buy time and postpone facing up to the consequences of not
paying the bill.
In a more general sense, saying this adage can often indicate that what someone has just said is a
poor excuse, along the lines of "the dog ate my homework." For example, someone could say that
they got to a test late because they were abducted by aliens. The professors response is likely to be
"Yeah, and the check is in the mail, right?"
The worst part of using an excuse like this is that the one making the excuse is trying to pass the
blame for their own ineptness on to someone else (in the case of the adage, the "someone else" is
the post office). This failure to take responsibility for one's actions seems to be a growing problem in
society, and I would like to see that change. And I have found the solution, too, but my maid must
have displaced it! (Yeah, and my check's in the mail, too.)
Don't Call Us, We'll Call You
This is an unfortunate adage. A stereotypical bad interview, for example, ends with the interviewer
telling the applicant "Don't call us, we'll call you." Because it has been repeated so many times, the
applicant immediately realizes that they have very little chance of getting what they want. They know
that, in fact, the interviewer is unlikely to ever call them. In addition, the interviewer probably doesn't
want the annoyance of hearing from someone who will waste his time.
The reason it is such an unfortunate adage is that it gives the speaker something to hide behind. As a
result, they do not have to face the uncomfortable situation of an outright rejection. It is truly a
cowardly thing to do.
What is even worse for the person the adage is spoken to is that they can never be sure if the "hidden
meaning" is really there. That is, the speaker may be indicating that they are very busy and it is simply
easier if they were allowed to initiate the contact. This ambiguity leads to even more apprehension
Therefore, try to avoid using this phrase at all costs. Instead, explain exactly what you mean. If you
intend to reject someone, tell them that. If you really would prefer to initiate contact because of your
schedule or other factors, let the person you are talking to know what those factors are.