When you say things like, Wild horses wouldn't drag the secret out of me, or I wouldn't do it for all the tea in China, have you ever thought what you are really saying? How long would you really last against a pack of determined wild horses with ropes attached to various parts of you? If someone really did offer you all the tea in China, could you really resist the thought that it would make you a millionaire for life? When you say that someone shot off like a startled gazelle, be honest - have you ever seen a gazelle being startled? Have you ever seen a gazelle? Would you recognise one if you ever saw it, and could you swear blind that it wasn't a startled antelope or a dismayed wildebeeste? And if I told you that a startled gazelle doesn't actually shoot off, but tends to stand stock still and then faint very slowly, as if it had been poleaxed, what would you say?
Would you say: I can't comment on that, as I have no idea what a poleaxe is?
Well, you may not have the faintest idea, but questions like this are dealt with every day at the Centre for Proverbial Research in the heart of Kent, where they actually test the value and meaning of all the proverbial phrases we use in everyday life. I was lucky enough to spend a day there last month in the company of the Centre's amiable director, Ralph Oddwick, who told me that a lot of proverbs have been tested to destruction already. Like which ones?
" Oh, well, we already have loads of statistics on wild horses, " he told me. " We have done plenty of experiments on whether wild horses will drag a secret from someone, and the answer is that nobody lasts much longer than ten seconds against an in-form wild horse. We have also done the ‘tea-in-China’ experiment, but that was a bit more problematic, as the tea you get in China these days is of low quality, and it would be impossible to get the money out even if you sold it all. A poleaxe is an old fighting axe, by the way. Can't remember why it's called that now. Incidentally, do you want to have a look at our chalk and cheese experiment? "
He ushered me into a small shed where a team was testing the old saying about things being as different as chalk and cheese.
" How's it going, Sid? " he said. " Found any cheeses like chalk? "
" Plenty, " said the man called Sid. " Some cheeses feel like chalk, some taste like chalk, and at least one cheese writes rather well on a blackboard. "
" Does it squeak? " said Ralph and they all laughed.
" How did this all start? " I asked him, as we strolled out again into the thin Kentish sunshine.
" Originally I was a researcher with the drink trade, " said Ralph, " and one of the big brewers got fed up with the old saying that someone was so stupid that he couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery. So I was hired to find out just how easy or hard it was to organise a piss-up in a brewery. "
" Well, quite hard, as it turns out. You need a drinks licence for a start, and there is never anywhere suitable in a brewery, and the beer is usually a bit young...... still, that's not the point. Once the word got around that someone was testing proverbial sayings, we were in business. A tea firm hired me to find out if you could really have a cup of tea so strong that you could stand a spoon in it. A shipping firm asked me to find out if things at sea were really more unusual. "
" Oh, you know the old thing about 'stranger things have happened at sea'? They wanted to know if stranger things really have happened at sea. So we started picking up sponsorship from commercial firms, but as our research into language widened we started getting Arts Council support, and now we get two million a year for our language testing. We are, after all, the only language testing laboratory in Britain. "
So all known proverbs have been tested by him, have they ?
" Well, we actually steer clear of real proverbs. The thing is that, as people have often noticed, for every proverb saying one thing there is another proverb saying the complete opposite. 'Many hands make light work', yes, but 'Too many chefs spoil the broth', and so on. So there is no real value in testing proverbs, as you can always find one to agree with both sides. What we are more interested in is proverbial sayings, or even just metaphors, like, oh, I don't know, like saying that someone goes like a bat out of hell. I mean, how fast does a bat out of hell go? And why a bat? Bats aren't renowned for being fast. Blind, yes, but not fast. "
And how did he research bats coming out of hell?
" Well, there are a whole lot of sayings about hell. No more chance than a snowflake in hell. Bat out of hell. Not a hope in hell. Devil take the hindmost. The devil's own luck. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned... "
Agreed, but how had he researched them all these hellish ideas ?
" We have our methods, " said Ralph Oddwick vaguely. " We have friends in low places. "
Are there any new sayings which come along which have to be tested, I asked him, or are they all old?
" Oh, no, new ones are always coming along. About ten years ago we were testing whether it really was possible to be to the right of Genghis Khan. About five years ago we were testing whether there was some whole other ball game that we didn't know about. And right now ... "
We were interrupted by the most awful caterwauling from a nearby window, as if a wild boar had just suffered a family bereavement.
" What is that? " I breathed.
" That? " said Ralph. " That is part of our ongoing test to see if it really is all over when the fat lady sings. "
(sent on Sunday June 4 1995)