A little WHAT is a dangerous thing?

When I talked to my father about all the things I've done to set up this blog, I faltered in one of my descriptions because I wasn't sure of a technical term.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," I told him.

"Isn't it 'a little learning,' not 'a little knowledge?'" he asked.

Well, of course that gave me a chance to grab Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and look up the real thing. Here it is, from Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again."

That's from his "Essay on Criticism." I need to take its advice and read the whole thing -- it's been years since I read much Pope.

(The Pierian spring, you ask? I had to go to my Webster's dictionary for that, but it's named after the district in Thessaly called Pieria. In Greek mythology, Pierides referred to the muses.)

So, as I drink deeply from the spring of my Bartlett's, I'm finding many quotations in their original form -- sadly, less familiar than they ought to be. Allow me to introduce you to some of the best:

There usually are words missing from this gem by William Ross Wallace (1819-1881):

"The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

I've often seen this proverb by the ever-prolific Anonymous using "would," not "might," but here's how Bartlett's said it was "from John Ray's 'English Proverbs' (1670):"

"If wishes were horses, beggars might ride."

I remember a rock band called Blood, Sweat and Tears. It seems they got their name by misquoting Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Bartlett's cites his first statement as Britain's prime minister in 1940 as follows:

"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

That's all for now... except for a gem from William Shakespeare (1564-1616) which often gets its verbs mangled and its spelling "updated." Here it is:

"Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow

That I shall say good night till it be morrow."


Not "tomorrow and tomorrow" but today -- type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.


Leave a comment
  • Act II Scene 2 ends with Romeo's reply to Juliet who has exited according to the stage direction:
    "Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in they breast!
    Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest."

    The Longman Guide to Shakespeare Quotations has this gloss on the two couplets:

    "The exchange of couplets that marks Romeo and Juliet's parting at the conclusion of this scene after their reciprocal declarations of love constitutes a passage of textual confusion. The Second Quarto divides the second couplet between the two speakers, even though it is a response to the first. The Second Quarto also divides the first line quoted between the speakers. The first phrase of the second sentence in the first couplet has passed into the language as a proverbial saying."

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you, o courageous captain of compliments!

Leave a comment