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For the last few thousand years, us humans have decided that citing old, time-tested proverbs and expressions is a great substitute for actual wit or insight. The fact that many of these sayings barely make sense anymore ("Well, you know what they say: Curiosity killed the cat!") actually makes them seem more wise. You know they came from another era, and have been passed down from grandparent to grandchild across a hundred generations.

The problem is that many of these phrases don't mean what we think, and the meaning has gotten lost precisely because they're so confusingly worded. We're talking about proverbs like ...

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"Carpe Diem"

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How We Use It

"I know I'll probably regret going to this drug-fueled frat party the night before an important final exam, but you know what they say: Carpe diem! Seize the day!"

"Carpe diem" has long been the rallying cry for college students who need a Latin proverb to defend their live-for-the-now attitude. The popular interpretation is that you should make the most out of today, because there's no point worrying about tomorrow when, for all you know, you could get hit by a bus. In recent years, it's been overtaken on the Internet by a different phrase that means basically the same thing -- YOLO, or "You only live once," which is kind of "carpe diem" for the acronym generation.

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"Wait, make that TWO pizzas. Carpe diem!"

The phrase was brought back into popularity by the feel-good Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society, but if you think his character was trying to motivate his students to forget about tomorrow and seize the chance to spend the night naked BASE jumping instead of studying, then you missed the point of that film. Like, really missed it.

What It Originally Meant

"I should seize my chance to study for this exam, lest I wind up spending the rest of my life smoking crack in a McDonald's parking lot. Carpe diem!"

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"Consider this diem motherfucking carped."

The original, extended form of the phrase is "Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero," which roughly translates to "Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future." Note that it's not about ignoring the future, but rather not trusting that everything is going to fall into place for you someday. It was compared to picking the fruit as it grows on the tree, taking life as it comes and doing the work that's before you.

Of course, that's kind of boring, and so the phrase would probably never have come back into popularity if it weren't for kids thinking it's all about seizing the chance to ramp a motorcycle into your neighbor's pool. YOLO!

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"Curiosity Killed the Cat"

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How We Use It

So you think that your neighbor is a serial killer and you want to sneak into his house at night so you can dig up evidence. That's a bad idea -- after all, as your mother used to say, "Curiosity killed the cat!"

This bizarre phrase (why a cat?) has for centuries been the grown-ups' way of reminding you that sticking your nose into other people's business is a good way to get your shit ruined. So stay out of mom's dildo closet, you hear!

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"Why are all of Mom's gifts vibrating?"

What It Originally Meant

"Worrying too much will give you a goddamned heart attack."

It turns out that the originators of the phrase didn't really blame "curiosity" for this unidentified cat's untimely demise. Which is good, because if you think about it, it's terrible advice. Curiosity is what motivated us to go to the moon, Grandma.

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"Better hold off on that AIDS research. We don't want to be too curious."

The real saying goes back to the 17th century English playwright Ben Jonson, who wrote a play containing the phrase "care kills a cat." Not "care" as in somebody took too much care of it, but "care" as in "worry." But it was popularized by Shakespeare who, in Much Ado About Nothing, referenced Jonson's phrase in the line "Though care killed the cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care."

In both cases, it wasn't curiosity that killed the cat, but worry. We still don't know why it was specifically a cat that worried itself to death. But in any event, the intended meaning was that stewing about things would lead to an early death, which makes way more goddamn sense than claiming that curiosity is fatal. Over time, the meaning of "care" started to get misinterpreted as something closer to inquisitiveness, and eventually authors like O. Henry were using the modern proverb that puts "curiosity" on the cat's death certificate.

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"Noooo! It's a grenade!"

Of course, that almost reverses the meaning -- curiosity is about taking risks and gaining knowledge, worry is about stressful inaction. Part of the problem is that we think of cats as being more curious than neurotic, but in the course of making the advice more accurate in terms of how it pertains to cats, it wound up being less useful to humans. We guess one could make the argument that it was a stupid phrase from the beginning.

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"Blood Is Thicker Than Water"

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How We Use It

As a reminder that family bonds are more important than temporary relationships with friends. "I don't care that your buddy wants you to help him move that day. It's your mom's birthday, and blood is thicker than water."

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"So put on your dorky helmet so we can ride by your friend's house and show him how stupid you look."

What It Originally Meant

"The bond between comrades is stronger even than your family allegiances. Nothing brings dudes together like bathing in the blood of the enemy!"

When we say that "blood is thicker than water," we're using the term "blood" in the same sense as "blood relations," or people in our immediate family. Typically, it's used as a means to shame family members who side with friends over their parents or siblings, and you'll hear it used by Mafia members who want to remind each other that their allegiance to the Family is all that matters.

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"My brother couldn't be trusted. His salvageable parts are in the briefcase."

But if "blood" is referring to blood relations, then what the hell is the "water" supposed to refer to? Well, we can trace this back to an earlier proverb, which was that "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." Which means we've actually got it backward -- the "water of the womb," or our family relationships, is not as strong as the "blood of the covenant."

Rather than "blood" shared by family, the original interpretation of the term was literal blood. In other words, the blood that is shed by soldiers on the battlefield makes for stronger bonds than those of the family you happened by chance to be born into. It was also used in reference to "blood covenants" that people used to make, which involved cutting each other and mixing their blood together in a more hardcore version of the modern pinkie swear.

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You're doing it wrong.

And once again, knowing the original meaning makes us realize how pointless and confusing the common understanding is. Why would the friends we spent time with instead of family ever be referred to as "water"? Because we met them in a bathhouse?

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"Charity Begins at Home"

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How We Use It

As a buzz term to protest against giving money to faceless strangers abroad. Google the phrase and you find a bunch of pundits and columnists all using it the same way: "Sure, some foreign country may have just been leveled by an earthquake or an exploding volcano, but there are starving people right here. We should fix the problems in our own country first -- after all, charity begins at home."

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"This looks like a great place to dispose of a Ziploc bag full of my shit."

What It Originally Meant

"You should absolutely give money to those war-torn tsunami orphans, and the first step to doing so is to not be a douchebag."

"Charity begins at home" is one of those obnoxious phrases that people use to alleviate their guilt about never actually being charitable. But they are, of course, using the word "charity" in the sense that it's most commonly used today -- giving money or aid to poor people. When the phrase "charity begins at home" was first coined, the definition of "charity" was a little different. From Roman times up until recently, "charity" wasn't necessarily about giving alms. It was more of a state of mind, a mentality of kindness and benevolence. You know this if you've read a Bible, by the way -- the word for "charity" and the more general "love" are both translated from the same Greek word, "agape."


Which in turn means something totally different in porn.

The point being, when people first started saying "charity begins at home," what they were trying to get across was that being a loving person in the home leads to being a loving person out in the world. In other words, it served as an instruction about how to be more generous, which is kind of the opposite of the way it's used today as a warning against being too generous. Or, as other experts have pointed out, only an asshole could hear "charity begins at home" and interpret it to mean that it also ends there.

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"Hey, it's the thought that counts, right? No?"

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"A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss"

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How We Use It

"I know I've quit 10 jobs in three years, and having no fixed address makes it hard for the government to track me down for child support payments, but that's just my style. A rolling stone gathers no moss!"

The band the Rolling Stones took their name from this saying, and so did Rolling Stone magazine, after the phrase became popular as a way for bohemians, hippies, and beatniks to explain their philosophy. It's the perfect catchphrase for free spirits who don't want to cramp their style by putting down roots.

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"Can't stick around. No moss, baby."

What It Originally Meant

"A rolling stone gathers no moss, which sucks because a naked, gray rock without any moss on it is an affront to all that is good. Fuck that mossless rock!"

Our first clue that this has been bastardized is the fact that versions of it go back almost 2,000 years, to ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian. This was an era when the most rock star lifestyle imaginable involved owning a nice plot of land and paying your taxes on time. Nobody was writing about the virtues of being a free-spirited drifter back then.

Via Wikipedia
"A rolling stone dies a pauper's death, alone and freezing on the street."

In fact, Quintilian helpfully avoided the confusing "stones and moss" metaphor and used the much clearer "A plant often removed cannot thrive." Well, that makes more sense: If you keep ripping up a flower and replanting it every week, it's never going to grow. In fact, there were other versions over the centuries, which included "A tree often transplanted is never loaded with fruit" and "... as the rolling stone gathers no moss, so the roving heart gathers no affections," both of which have the advantage of not assuming that the listener likes mossy rocks in their yard.

But the moss-and-stone metaphor is the one that survived, and that's why the hippies could think that a proverb intended to encourage settling down not only supports bouncing around from place to place, but actually warns against settling down, as if a long-term career and family is somehow harmful to the human soul. All because a generation of people read this metaphor and thought, "Eew, moss."



Want more J.? We thought so, too. Get some here. Chris Snipes and his wordsmithing adventures can be tracked down at AllGeeksRejoice.com.



For more ways our language is all screwed up, check out 8 Racist Words You Use Every Day and 7 Ridiculous Origins of Everyday Words.

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