OFF THE CUFF: February 20, 2015

My wife’s father was a newspaper reporter and Time magazine editor. Throughout his life he tore out piles and piles of sayings, book reviews, poems, essays, and the like and stashed them in a row of file cabinets, sorted carefully by his own Dewey non-Decimal System.

Published February 20, 2015 10:02 PM
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CUFF-thMy wife’s father was a newspaper reporter and Time magazine editor. Throughout his life he tore out piles and piles of sayings, book reviews, poems, essays, and the like and stashed them in a row of file cabinets, sorted carefully by his own Dewey non-Decimal System.

CuffBy Allen Clark

My wife’s father was a newspaper reporter and Time magazine editor. Throughout his life he tore out piles and piles of sayings, book reviews, poems, essays, and the like and stashed them in a row of file cabinets, sorted carefully by his own Dewey non-Decimal System. He also typed up things he liked, as well as his own thoughts and fodder for his one great novel, which never quite got there.

My wife and I held onto these files and only recently started the task of reading and weeding. In the process, I was struck by his penchant for finding epigrams, aphorisms, and witticisms from the famous and not-so famous. I thought some of the not-so-well-known deserved a larger audience.

Take this one from someone named Beerbohm Tree. “Genius is an infinite capacity for not having to take pains.” (Oh, the pains I’ve taken! I can appreciate that.) Then this one: “A committee should consist of three men, two of whom are absent.” This works with “three women” just as well, I suspect. And back to genius, “He is an old bore. Even the grave yawns for him.”

By the way, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was a London theater actor in the 1880s, then a stage manager, and a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, himself no slouch with witticisms. Tree was a victim of Wilde’s wicked wordsmithing, e.g., “A charming fellow [Tree], and so clever: he models himself on me.”

Wilde’s sayings are better known, such as, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” One of my favorites, “Work is the curse of the Drinking Class.” And back to the theater, “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” A lesser known: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

My father-in-law clipped e.e. cummings (with his lower case conceit). I wouldn’t have suspected epigrams from cummings, but here are two my father-in-law liked. “Nothing recedes like progress” and “Great men burn bridges before they come to them.”

TV and film actor Marcia Rodd (another unknown to me) gets on this list with, “How can you tell it’s fall in New York City? All the leaves turn from grey to black.”

Here’s one from Carveth Read, a British philosopher and logician (1848–1931): “It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.” It shows philosophers also can have a bit of common sense.

Some of these bolts of wisdom were anonymous, like these two Danish proverbs. “The tallest man must stretch sometimes, and the shortest must stoop” and “Blacksmiths’ children are not afraid of sparks.”

Because he was my father-in-law, let me end with what appears to be one of his own: “I’m not mad about horses. They’re dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.”

Perhaps you have an epigram or witticism in you? Why not give it a try.

 

 

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