“Assume” Saying


“You know what my Dad loved to do whenever we said the word assume? He’d run to get a piece of paper and write the word assume. Then he’d go ‘You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of you and me!’” (As J said the second sentence, she made three motions with her hands as she said the words “ass,” “you,” and “me” to mimic someone underlining the words with a pen or pencil).  


J, my mother, was taught this saying when she was a young child in Ontario, Canada by my grandfather. She told me this story with a sense of fondness, smiling as she recounted how her father would “run to get a pen and paper” every time she or one of her siblings used the word “assume” in her childhood home. To her, humor seemed to be the main element of her father’s use of the phrase. From what I remember of my own childhood, I haven’t seen her use the phrase-gesture combo, although I have heard the saying. 


To me, this saying’s humorous nature and its accompanying gestures seem to function as emphasis or a form of mnemonic. By breaking down the word “assume” into a memorable phrase and repeating it constantly, my grandfather caused his children to remember the saying well into adulthood. If my mother and her siblings are able to easily remember the saying, they therefore also remember, consciously or not, its accompanying warning against making assumptions. The use of taboo language also helps to convey the saying’s message, possibly indicating my grandfather’s belief in the incorrect or improper nature of assuming. On the other hand, this saying could also be a way to use or explore taboo language in a more socially accepted manner (which, like my mother, I think is likely). Like many instances of folk speech, if saying something directly would get a person in trouble, they can instead use the proverb to call on collective wisdom and divert the blame. I also suspect that my grandfather in particular may have adapted the phrase into a kind of “dad humor” used to tease and bond with his kids.