Or, Trafficking in Goose Proverbs
by Kris *V*
Amidst some recent research,I ran across a pro-Jeffersonian Embargo (probargo?) newspaper piece which opened its partisan catechism with a curious saying:
~ “For the Columbian Phenix,” Columbian Phenix (Providence, RI), 12 November 1808
The editorial itself is a dialogue, where one side, expressed in italics, offers simple opinions by someone who opposes the Embargo (I admire the administration of Washington or I like not your republican principles etc), and the longer answers, in plain text, offer detailed rebuttals. Since the Phenix [sic] appears to be a Jeffersonian newspaper, the piece seems to be a preaching-to-the-choir editorial, aimed at mobilizing the base — a GOTV operation. (The catechism form of political hackery is a bit different from how we present things today, but you could think of it as a sort of talking points memo).
But as someone with a vested interest in things brantaïc, I was more curious about the epigram than the Republican politicking.
From a few searches in the usual places (Google Books, HathiTrust, etc), it seems the phrase was common enough – and old enough – to be rooted in the primers and spellers, the basic textbooks of the 16th through 19th centuries. Specifically, it proverb appeared in an often-reprinted list of the “best English proverbs” in books like the New England Primer:
~Westminster Assembly. The New-England primer, improved, for the more easy attaining the true reading of English. To which is added, the Assembly of divines catechism (Hartford : Printed by Hudson & Goodwin, M,DCC,LXXXVIII. .)
Perhaps unsurprisingly –- and despite its later Republican bona fides –- these geese-centric proverbs don’t appear in Noah Webster’s (successful) attempt at a nationalist reconstruction of language, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783). The more influential of his works during his own lifetime and for well after (who reads a dictionary after all?), the GIEL included a speller, a grammar, and a reader, all aimed “[t]o diffuse an uniformity and purity of language in America, to destroy the provincial prejudices that originate in the trifling differences of dialect and produce reciprocal ridicule, to promote the interest of literature and the harmony of the United States…” — or so, at least, he explained in the Preface to the American Spelling Book.
In that light, one can hardly expect the best English proverbs to have remained, once all the thoroughly monarchist and colourful extra vowels have been removed, right? And as go the English proverbs, so go the geese. Flown away, but not forgotten.