13 Crazy, Dirty Modern Proverbs

Fred Shapiro, co-editor of a dictionary of viral sayings, picks the quirkiest lines of folk wisdom.

When you think of proverbs, you picture expressions of ancient wisdom. But new wisdom is constantly being created, and many sayings have gone “viral” in the 20th and 21st centuries. “Hindsight is always 20-20.” “Close doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.” “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, not his own facts.” The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, collects these proverbs and provides information on their origins and meanings. But not all sayings are as chaste as “No good deed goes unpunished.” Shapiro picks the 13 craziest, dirties, quirkiest lines that are fit to print.

Never get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

1966, Nov. Larry L. King, “Joe Pool of HUAC,” Harper’s 233, no. 1398, p. 64: “’Hell,’ I said, ‘the only way you can lose this election, Joe, is to get caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.’ Pool boomed with laughter.”

1984, Dec. 20. Pacific Stars and Stripes: “Throughout his 1983 campaign, [Edwin] Edwards entertained voters with such boasts as: ‘The only way I can lose is if I’m found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.’”

2000. Laura Lippman, Sugar House, p. 298: “Never get caught with a dead girl or a live boy. You left Dahlgren with a dead boy.”

Excuses are like assholes; everybody has them and most of them stink.

1974. Robert Reisner and Lorraine Wechsler, Encyclopedia of Graffiti, p. 290: “Excuses are like assholes—everybody’s got one!” (Said to have been recorded in Detroit in 1971.)

1982. Greg Barron, Groundrush, p. 17: “Pap hadn’t blamed the refs. ‘Excuses are like assholes,’ he told Jason. ‘Ever’body’s got one, and they all stink.’ But the adage was wasted on Jason, who didn’t blame the refs either.”

One ought to try everything once except incest and folk dancing.

1943. Arnold Bax, Farewell, My Youth, p.17: “The folk-song phase was inevitably followed by an enthusiasm for folk-dancing, and as to this infliction I, for one, would have been happy to cry: ‘The nine men’s morris [dance] is choked up with mud.’ A sympathetic Scot summed it all up very neatly in this remark, ‘You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing.’”

1972, Aug. 17. Wall Street Journal: “When [George S.] Kaufman was a very young boy, his father told him to ‘try everything in life but incest and folk-dancing.’ He did.”

Life is a shit sandwich: the more bread you have, the less shit you eat.

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1978. Dick Donnelly, “Comic Book Capitalism,” Socialist Standard 74, p.189: “One of them [witticisms submitted to the magazine New Musical Express] struck me as being rather less silly than most; it stated, ‘Life is a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat.’” The word bread has the punning sense of “money.” The proverb probably originated as an anti-proverb based on “Life is a shit sandwich.”

If you aren’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.

1980. Paul Dickson, The Official Explanations, p. 202: “Sgt. Preston’s Law of the Wild: The scenery only changes for the lead dog.”

1985, Jan. 13. Washington Post: (Quoting the Georgia humorist Lewis Grizzard.) “Just remember this one thing: Life is like a dog-sled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.”

If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

1967, May 24. Sheboygan Press: “After the Presidential visit, related one of the fliers, Navy crews had painted this slogan on some fighter-bombers: ‘Grab ‘em by the throat[,] the hearts and minds will follow.”

1969, Mar. 15. Pacific Stars and Stripes: “Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa interrupted the interview to send an aide to fetch a cigarette lighter he had received from admiring members of a tank battalion in Vietnam. The lighter bore an inscription to the effect that when you have men by a vulnerable part of the anatomy, ‘their hearts and minds will follow.’”

1974, June 4. Los Angeles Times: “In the den of his Tudor-style home on two wooded acres in McLean, Va., he [Chuck Colson] tacked up a plaque with a Green Beret slogan: ‘When you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.’”

The proverb, widely attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, satirizes the Kennedy administration’s hope of winning “the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.

Close your eyes and think of England.

1943, May 18. Washington Post: “Stanley Baldwin’s son tells this story of the day his sister went out with a young man who wanted to marry her. She asked her mother for advice, in case the young man should want to kiss her … ‘Do what I did,’ said her mother, reminiscing of the beginning of her romance with the man who was to become Prime Minister. ‘Just close your eyes and think of England’.”

1972. Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, p.71:" 'I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.' ” (Gathorne-Hardy attributes the quoted matter to Lady Alice Hillingdon’s “journal,” but no such journal appears to exist, and the quotation is probably apocryphal.)

The common male counterpart of the proverb, regarding sexual intercourse with a homely partner appears in 1969’s Golem, a Hero for Our Time by Myles Ludwig, p. 166: “Ah, what’s the big deal anyway? They all look alike in the dark. One hole’s as good as another. Put a flag over her head and f—k for old glory.”

There are more horses’ asses than horses in the world.

1957. Ed Lacy, Room to Swing, p. 5: “As somebody once said, there are more horses’ asses than horses in the world, and at the moment I felt like the number-one rear.” The proverb is sometimes referred to as the “equine paradox.”

You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig.

1985, Nov. 16. Washington Post: “The board of commissioners, reluctant to commit to such a project, asked if they couldn’t use the money to renovate Candlestick Park. ‘That,’ replied KNBR personality Ron Lyons, ‘would be like putting lipstick on a pig.’”

1986, Jan. 8. Dallas Morning News: “’It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. It can’t hide its ugliness,’ said [Jim] Hightower, a self-styled ‘progressive’ Democrat.”

1992, Oct. 16. Virginia-Pilot: (Regarding a character on the television series Designing Women.) “She speaks her mind and tosses around such Bubba-isms as this one: ‘You can put lipstick on a pig and call it Matilda. But it’s still a pig.’”

Never wrestle a pig; you will both get dirty, and the pig likes it.

1946. Richard P. Calhoon, Moving Ahead on Your Job, p. 171: “And when you begin refuting one another’s reasons, fussing back and forth, you generally do what a nationally known industrial relations authority warns you against: you wallow in the mud with a pig. He says, ‘Never wallow in the mud with a pig, because the pig likes it.’”

1948, May 31. Daily Mail: “Some politicians were discussing hecklers. One of them said he never made reply. ‘Many years ago,’ he explained, ‘my father told me never to roll in the mud with a pig. Because you both get covered with mud—and the pig likes it.’”

1950, Oct. 23. “The Administration: Come & Get It,” Time 56, no. 17, p. 212: “I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig,’ [Cyrus] Ching likes to say. ‘You get dirty and besides the pig likes it.’”

Some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.

1993. Roger C. Anderson, Some Days You’re the Pigeon—Some Days You’re the Statue: Comic Confessions of a College President.

1995, June 6. Toronto Star: “’The moral of the story,’ says Connie Chung, ‘is that some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue.’ Since getting dumped from CBS Evening News two weeks ago, the diminutive Chung has been feeling awfully statue-esque.”

The toes you step on today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.

1999. Bruce Klatt, Ultimate Training Workshop Handbook, p. 448: “Timing is important. Thus a quip like, ‘Be careful who’s [sic] toes you step on today, they may be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow’ is funny if it’s timed right.”

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.

1976, May 5. Corpus Christi Times: (Quoting Barbara Hower.) “[A] feminist said recently an independent woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. That’s horse feathers, at least for me. I like what I’m doing but I’d like someone to scratch and giggle with” (credited to Chicago Daily News).

1976, June 5. Seattle Times: “Sign in a (feminist?) dress shop in Seattle, Wash.: ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’”

1976, July 26. People 6, no. 4, p.20: (Photo caption.) “Gloria Steinem (left) planned to wear a shirt that said, ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,’ but, like Candy Bergen, arrived unlettered at a [Democratic Party] women’s fund raiser.”

1976, Aug. 9. Mary Murphy, “Superstar Women and Their Marriages,” New York Magazine 9, no. 32, p. 26: “[Gloria] Steinem sums it up: ‘Today a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

2000, Oct. 9. Gloria Steinem, Time, 156, no. 15, p.20: Steinem disclaimed credit for originating the feminist expression. “Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970.”