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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

We live in an age of reproduction. I’m sure some thinky guy somewhere made that point, probably while wearing a beret. I could just make the point myself and pretend that it was my idea. Or I could Google and find out that it was Max Frisch.

I needed to get the link to this blog for someone and so I googled for it, and what should I find but a group of Welsh people on Youtube doing exactly the same thing that this blog sets out to do – testing proverbs by experiment – under almost exactly the same title. This blog is titled ‘Proverbial experiments’ and their Youtube thing is called ‘The Proverbial Experiment’.

I was somewhat taken aback. I mean, the Universe is vast and there is plenty of room for coincidence, for people to have the same idea independently, but there is also the possibility that someone read my blog and thought it was a good idea and decided to do it themselves. I was certainly doing this a year before them – their first post is in Oct 2010. A month after my testing of ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness‘.

And then it struck me, that here was an opportunity to test a proverb!

‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

So, I watch these Welsh students/comedy actors test the proverb ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. A man who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo and a podgy man with glasses go awkwardly into a cupboard, where they blow out a candle. The podgier one swears. They conclude that the proverb is incorrect.

This is the same conclusion I reached when I tested the same proverb.

It could be a coincidence, but for the purposes of our experiment let us assume that they are copying me.

Having been imitated, do I feel flattered?

Well. No, not really.

Any joke one has heard before is stale, and can only elicit polite laughter at best, but one that you have made yourself that is told back to you is even staler.

I think my version of the experiment is better (well, I would, wouldn’t I?), it is at least more original, seeing as I did it first.

Initially, I feel annoyed at these people – if they are copying me and have not given me credit – then I feel embarrassed, sorry for them.

Then nobler sentiments flit through my being. Ideas are easily spread and shared in the modern age and if I did spark in them the fire of inspiration then that is a good thing. I can consider myself the brain to their shambling Frankenstein’s monster, the spark of inspiration to their mindless lumbering body, a body stitched together from pieces of stolen corpses.

Then I feel hungry and decide to go and get some breakfast.

Proverbial truth

Do famous people feel flattered by their lookalikes? I can’t imagine that Bryan Ferry is particularly by this chap and I daresay these chaps add to the reasons why Tony Blair finds it difficult to get to sleep at night.

I can’t imagine that either Dolce or Gabana are flattered by the fake handbags that adorn rickety markets the world over, stitched together in sweatshops by the tiny hands of Vietnamese children. I imagine that this imitation makes Dolce quite angry, and Gabana has to have a lie down on the sofa.

Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Sincere flattery is the sincerest form of flattery.

When I first started doing this blog, in June 2009, it was as an entry to a competition to write for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency as a columnist.

I did not win, but I received an email from the managing editor telling me that I was a finalist and that: “in a world with more time/space/money, we would have been happy to host your writing on our site. I wanted to tell you this because I’m hoping you’ll take this as the encouragement your work deserves and that you’ll keep sending your writing into the world.”

I know that this is essentially a delicately worded rejection, but still it was flattering enough to provide me with the confidence to persevere.

I conclude that this proverb is not true.  Flattery is encouraging, but imitation is disheartening, this is the essential difference I think.

About the proverb

The internet tells me that this proverb dates from the beginning of the 19th century, but that there were similar phrases in existence beforehand.

A forum on the site provides this helpful citation:

Usually said ironically when someone tries to gain attention by copying someone else’s original ideas. Coined by Charles Caleb Colton in 1820 in his ‘Lacon.’ First attested in the United States in ‘Malice’ by E. Cameron. The adage is found in varying forms.” From “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996)


It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

The Chinese, as you would expect from the inventors of toilet paper and Tofu, have a wealth of wisdom to impart.

When a friend of mine became aware of this proverb testing project he generously offered to me an old Chinese saying he had come across:

‘beat your wife every day, even if you don’t know why – she will’.

Much as I appreciate the gesture on his part, this shocking maxim poses several problems to a diligent tester, not least ethical (domestic violence is a serious, horrible issue) and practical (I am unmarried).  So, imagine my joy when some days later I experienced a power cut and was granted the opportunity to test another saying I had read.

It was after eleven o’clock at night when darkness descended upon me.  In the suddenly imposed silent gloam I stumbled about the flat, all electricity had gone. I was intending to get my bike’s front light and check the fusebox, but seeing an opportunity where others might see a crisis (more Chinese wisdom) I decided to test this proverb.

‘Bloody darkness!’ I said.  Though I was slightly amused by this, I did feel that I should get a candle (having decided to adhere to the proverb as literally as possible).  Nonetheless, acclimatising to both the shadow and the cursing, I ventured onward.

‘Twat!’ I exclaimed.  It was quite enjoyable, and actually made the situation slightly fun.  Feeling mischievous I wandered into the bedroom, where all was mute and black, ‘piss off you big Benny’ I shouted at the dark, walking forward and chuckling to myself.

And then I trod, barefoot as I was, on the upended, three pronged malice of my phone charger.

“Holy m*************g c***t!”, I screamed in surprised agony, clutching my foot and hopping about in the blackness. ‘f****** HELL!’

The pain was sharp and severe, and knocked all the fun out of me, I reeled about and banged into the wardrobe and then, feeling my way along the wall, fell onto the bed holding my foot and swearing like a sailor, a sailor who had accidentally stepped barefoot on Neptune’s trident.

When I had eventually calmed down, and the pain had subsided enough for me to think about things other than my foot, I carefully limped to the kitchen where I lit a candle and duly checked the trip switch of the fuse box. It was intact, indicating that there was an actual power cut, so I phoned the power company’s dedicated line with my mobile and went to bed, blowing the candle out only at the last possible moment .

As I lay in bed, thinking about writing up the results and with my foot still throbbing in complaint, I recalled the writing advice of Ernest Hemingway: ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts’. Drifting off to sleep I wondered whether he had ever considered writing a book titled ‘The old man and the three pronged plug’.

Proverbial truth

While it should be noted that the cursing was in some way therapeutic it should also be noted that had I lit a candle before wandering about, I would not have trodden on the phone charger.  Therefore I conclude that this proverb is a wise and true one.

However, in this instance the figurative meaning that it is better to act positively than to just complain, is slightly redundant as the act of lighting a candle when one has trodden on a plug is not practical. Swearing loudly is the best, somewhat involuntary, course.

About the proverb

I came across it referred to as a Chinese proverb.  Apparently it is also alluded to in Amnesty International’s logo of a candle surrounded by barbed wire.

Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes

‘Alright mate. Listen, I have a favour to ask. Can I borrow your shoes?’

On the end of the line is a friend of mine, let’s call him Eddie. Some people have been known to describe his behaviour as, to put it politely, questionable. He is rather fond of the pleasures of life.

‘I need to borrow your shoes. ‘ I repeat.


‘It won’t be for long’.

‘What size feet have you got?’

‘It doesn’t matter’


‘What size feet are you?’



I am relieved that he and I are the same shoe size.

Suprisingly, he doesn’t question me any further, he sounds amused but accepting. He says an insouciant ‘sure, mate’, and we arrange for me to pick up the shoes later that day.

I meet Eddie at the pub after I finish work. His grin and mischief-tousled hair remind me of how fond of him I am, we exchange a greeting, a cross between a high five and handshake.

Pleasantries aside, I ask for the shoes. He says he has a pair of trainers but he wants to know why I want to borrow them. I evade answering him by noticing something in the distance which turns out to not be what I thought it was. He is intrigued but goes off to his house nearby and returns with a plastic bag.

I am not enamoured of the shoes. They are his ‘golf shoes’. They have lived a life, a difficult life, I would guess. Their tongues loll out like those of an enthusiastic or exhausted dog.

It is several days before I get the chance to put the second phase of my experiment into practice. My mother some Christmasses ago gave me a pedometer. I wonder if it was out of concern for my weight as I get the dusty object out of the box. I clip it to my belt and set out into the sunlight to travel a mile, wearing the red and muddied shoes of my friend.

Walk a mile in these muddy golf shoesWandering out along the suburban streets where Eddie and I lived out our teenage years, I think back, I remember things that are both amusing and poignant. Every so often, snapping out of my reverie, I become slightly self concious of my bright red shoes.

I am walking to Alexandra Palace. Passing through priory park I remember with a laugh a crazy ballet Eddie once did on the dance floor of a cross-channel ferry, one Ouzo soaked night when we were 16. I can still see, vividly, Eddie pirouhetting on the ferry dancefloor, being imitated by adulating Germans.

Through the streets, various recollections occur. Among the amusement and fondness there are some things I recall, times when I felt slighted or wronged by Eddie’s actions, which cause me to feel judgmental.

I recall that I was once punched in the face by an irate hulk of a man, who erroneously believed I had something to do with Eddie’s alleged theft of his Christmas trees, but who was far beyond reason by the point he grabbed me (he had seen me in Eddie’s company earlier, and had assumed I was complicit).

Indignant anger wells in the pit of my belly, but remembering the purpose of my journey I drain it. I am not yet to be judgmental, I think, as I rub the bridge of my nose.

I am at the base of Alexandra palace. My pedometer has already informed me that I have walked a mile, but feel that I should like to reach the top.

Ascending the rise of the great hill, the evening light is warm and lies upon the city like a dusting of fine gold. The muddy red shoes glow with a seeming pride.

I’ve walked a mile in Eddie’s shoes and so now I can, according to the proverb, judge him.

At the summit, I survey the trees and buildings and traffic of the spreading city before me, a David Bowie lyric comes to mind, from the (bonkers) album ‘Lodger’:

‘[I am] just a working man, no judge of men’.

I realise that I don’t want to judge him, and that I am not qualified to do so, anyway. Not that I understand him better for wearing his shoes briefly.

He lent me his shoes without having to be told why, and that kindness on his part in itself means that any thoughts of judgment dissolve into fondness with the evening sunlight over the shady city.

Proverbial truth:

Seems a wise instruction with an element of truth to it, practically and figuratively. Though if actual Judges were to adhere to it, it might clog up the legal system somewhat (no pun intended).

About the proverb:

Exists in a supposed Native America version ‘walk two moons in a man’s moccasins before you judge him’, and people vaguely refer to it as a ‘Muslim saying’. Ray G of ‘Yahoo answers’ found the earliest citation to be from 1957

Further to this proverb, there is also the good advice that you should walk a mile in a man’s shoes before you judge because then you will be a mile away, and you will also have his shoes.

All cats love fish but hate to get their paws wet

How sensible and sage this old proverb seems.  But before we accept this hackneyed wisdom as our own, we should methodically put to the test its premises.

In order to do so I have set myself out on the communal lawn of where I live.  I am in a deckchair, the summer sun is making my wait quite enjoyable with its lulling heat.  I have taken my shirt off.

At my side, I have a plate with three shimmering silver sardines upon it, and lain on my lap, a dayglo orange waterpistol.

Patience is the watchword here.

It only takes some twenty minutes before my virtue is rewarded.  A ginger cat of the ‘mangy tom’ variety skulks among the cars parked to my right. Its nose quivers with  delicious acknowledgement of the sardines. Green eyes gleam with anticipation.  The cat pads delicately towards me. Stopping at a safe enough distance to consider the circumstance.

With the indulgent grace of some benevolent King I take in my hand a fish and toss it onto the soft grass between us.

Certainly, this particular cat seems to affirm as true the first premise, that all cats love fish, as it hurries towards the scaled treasure with a delighted swagger.

No sooner has the cat reached its prize and sought to deliver it to its grateful throat than I am setting about testing the second premise.

A deft aim and squirt sends a shoot of cold water onto the hapless moggy’s legs.  An indignant cry tears the air and the cat bolts away from this cruel lawn.  Leaving behind half of the fish, which stares at me with blank yellow eyes in what appears to be cold and judgmental consideration.

This case study certainly seems to confirm that cats love fish, and also that they hate to get their paws wet.

I had planned to repeat the experiment, in order to have a statistically viable sample.  But clouds have rolled before the sun, and with the chill, I also feel some sort of guilt, so instead I leave the remaining two and a half fish on the lawn, as offerings of concilliation to the ginger cat with the wet paws.

Proverbial truth:

Seems true, but I hadn’t the heart to test it any further.

About the proverb

Appears to be old English:

‘The cat is fain the fish to eat, but hath no will to wet her feet.’

And also appears in a Scots version:

‘Like the cat, fain fish wad ye eat, but ye are laith to weet your feet’

It appears in a collection of proverbs from 1663 by Pappity Stampoy

Yes, THE Pappity Stampoy.