The 5 Most Frequently Misused Proverbs

#2. "Charity Begins at Home"


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."

"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.

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

#1. "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss"


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.

"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

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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