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  • The Oldest Phrase in the World March 17, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    wading river
    Sentences are passed from mouth to mouth down through the ages: some of these that are both reckoned wisdom and that attain a particularly attractive form remain with us. A simple question now: what is the oldest sentence in continual use?

    First, some ground rules. The sentences in question cannot be overly general. For example, every conglomeration of humans have come up with the same banalities not necessarily with any contact with each other: things change, dogs bite, hate taxes… If we got five hundred babies to Mars and left them in isolation they’d soon be muttering the same truisms to each other. These do not count.

    Second, there has got to be some degree of continuity. It doesn’t matter, for example, if a phrase cannot be demonstrably used in every generation from 4000 BC: Indeed, there are periods when there is so little documentation – e.g. the bottleneck of the Dark Ages – when it would be impossible to prove or disprove use. However, a phrase written in Sumerian and then resurrected in a horror film, say, in 1990, would not cut it.

    So candidates? Beach got very excited about the phrase: ‘No one can step twice in the same river’. These words were almost certainly composed (in Ionic Greek) by Heraclitus of Ephesus and preserved thanks to Plato. If we admit that this sentence was written c. 500 BC then we seem to have a phrase that has been around for over two thousand years and that most folk walking down main-street would recognize or even finish for you. (They may not know the truer but less attractive sentence of Heraclitus of which the one above is perhaps a paraphrase, ‘We both step and do not step in the same river: we are and are not’ also preserved in Plato). The problem is though that the first post-classical reference Beach can find is till 1509. In other words the quotation seems to have disappeared for the greater part of a millennium in western Europe: did it survive perhaps in the Greek Mediterranean, in the libraries and classrooms of Byzantium perhaps?

    Beach then toyed with (the psychologically acute) ‘pride comes before a fall’. This appears in Proverbs 16, 18. The Book of Proverbs was probably composed 1000BC to 600 BC, though it is the kind of book that invites additions… It is likely, then, that this phrase precedes Heraclitus’s Greek mumblings and that it had a strong afterlife in classical Hebrew texts and also medieval Christian writing. It also would be instantly recognizable at the shop counter or in the pub.

    Can anyone backdate perhaps with reference to Indian or Chinese tradition? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Almost certainly…

    17 Mar 2014: EH and COR write in with the same phrase. First, EH, ‘I have a phrase, maybe not as good as a sentence.  The Homeric phrase _kleos aphthiton_, “undying glory” supposedly has a Vedic cognate phrase _śráva(s) ákṣitam_, which would, if they were really cognates, go back to a reconstructed Indo-European _*klewos ṇdhgwhitom_.  That would be a very, very old phrase, and since Homer was written down and has been known & quoted continuously in the Greek-speaking world, one that might be said to be in continuous use up till today.’ COR: Has anyone suggested “fame imperishable” yet? Studies of the Vedas and of Ancient Greek poetry suggest that this phrase goes back to Proto-Indo-European. You can see a reference here:  I believe this fits your criterion of being continuously cited, given the survival and preservation of the Greek/Vedic poetic tradition for centuries. A quick google indicates that it is a very frequent phrase in modern literature.’ Beach likes this. His only concern is whether fame imperishable is not perhaps in the same category as dogs bite, everything changes… i.e. it is generic and will appear in slightly different forms spontaneously in different cultures? Chris S. writes instead: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” from the code of Hammurabi, 1780 BC. I think that’s pretty ancient. Some worth runners-up. “There are two sides to every question” according to Protagoras in 470 BC. “To call a spade a spade” dating to 423 BC, appearing in The Clouds. The original phrasing was “To call a fig, a fig, a trough, a trough” which was meant in a very saucy context. “Hair of the dog” also comes from Aristophanes, popularized by John Heywood in his Proverbs c. 1546. “A chip off the old black” comes from Theocrites in 270 BC, but originally phrased as “A chip of the old flint” in Idylls. Julius Caesar is credited with “Jacta alea est” in 49 BC, or “The die is cast”. Draco was the source of two, where draconian referred to his ruthless form of justice. “To kill with kindness” comes from the description of Draco’s death by being smothered under cloaks and caps. Euclid popularized hóper édei deîxai, quod erat demonstrandum, or Q.E.D..’ An eye for an eye perhaps. If so God what a depressing commentary on humanity… Huge thanks to Chris, COR and EH!

    The great Chris S, 30 Jun 2016,  writes “a taste of your own medicine” dates to Aesop

    Chris S brings in pop lyrics, 25 Nov 2016: “Turn,Turn, Turn” has the oldest lyrics for a #1 pop hit, the source being the Book of Ecclesiastes. Here’s Beach’s favourite version.