“My grandpa would tell us the following: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.’ (laughs) The companion one was ‘A bird in the hand makes blowing your nose very difficult.’”
What did they mean to you?
“The first thing they meant was that they were funny. Clearly it was about poking fun at old and real proverbs. But also to emphasize that you should be happy with what you’ve got. But mostly it was about being funny (laughs).”
The informant is my father. He was raised Jewish and grew up on the East Coast of the United States. This information was collected during a family zoom call where we were checking in with each other.
These punny proverbs subvert the “original” ones and give them new meaning. If you don’t know the original proverbs (“you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” and “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”), these jokes wouldn’t be funny to you. If you are familiar with these proverbs, the unexpected punchline will elicit a giggle. This remix of original proverbs is a microcosm of how people manipulate and change “canonical” content, make it their own, and share it with others.