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Spectator competition: redefine ‘oolite’ and ‘ampthill’ (plus: your meaningless proverbs)

7 June 2014

The latest call, for proverbs that sound profound but have no meaning, attracted an enormous entry. It was a pleasure to judge, and cheering, too, to see lots of unfamiliar names in among the regulars.

The best entries contain just the promise of a profound meaning — but frustrate the reader’s attempt to work out exactly what it is. I tried to weed out those submissions (some of them very amusing) that did express a clearly discernible deeper truth, but some may have slipped through the net.

The following competitors deserve an honourable mention: ‘The shallow puddle floods no meadows’ (D.A. Prince); ‘A circular argument cannot be broken’ (Barry Baldwin); ‘People in glass houses should put their kaftans on’ (Tessa Maude); ‘Never play chess with snooker balls’ (Dr J.D. Renwick); ‘Never underestimate big numbers’ (Nigel Grigg); ‘It’s a weak proverb that hasn’t got something to say’ (John O’Byrne); ‘Even Adam and Eve were not forbidden to eat a pickled onion’ (Brian Murdoch); ‘Wit needs no disguise’ (Michael Jones); ‘A cauliflower is a vegetable but a sweet pea is not’ (Alanna Blake).

Lord Chesterfield warned his son that proverbial expressions are ‘the flowers of the rhetoric of the vulgar man’, and that ‘a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms’. But perhaps he would have changed his mind if he’d seen the glorious nuggets of folk wisdom you’ve come up with.

The winners below are rewarded with four pounds for each proverb printed. Congratulations, all round.

Brian Allgar
A wise snake never attempts to play hopscotch.
It is better to scalp a cat than to swallow a lawnmower.
No living creature is ever too old to age.
It’s a short road that has no length.


Chris O’Carroll
The deepest ocean is shallow at the shoreline.
When you don’t know where you’re going, every route is a shortcut.
Even a tall man has his toenails close to the ground.
You won’t find your keys in a kangaroo’s pocket.
You can’t hide what you can’t find.
Life is the crossword, love is the clue.
There is no ‘I’ in ‘eye’.
No staircase leads in only one direction.
Success is a strategy, not a tactic.
A steep mountain rises from a flat plain.

G.M. Davis
The overcoat of conceit will not deter the lizard of oblivion.
The mountain does not argue with the valley.
The hungry goat does not ask for Lobster Thermidor.
Live like a nettle, die like a lotus.

Basil Ransome-Davies
The wise caterpillar shuns the anvil.
Beware the bridge that stops halfway across.
The burrowing mole sees not the horizon.

Alan Millard
Badger the fox and you’ll fox the badger.
Letters in post boxes cannot be read.
The wake of a ferry leads nowhere fast.
Still waters won’t run a bath.

Bill Greenwell
Woods do not grow on trees.
The dead need no passports.
It’s a poor morning that never turns into afternoon.

Sid Field
A knot in a plank cannot be undone.
It is a poor pawnbroker who has only two balls.
There are more coppers in a pound than there are in a police station.

Patrick Smith
It is better to have travelled than never to have arrived.

Frank Upton
Lowing sheep and barking geese/ Fill the cooking pot with grease.

John MacRitchie
The bigger the churn, the more the cheese.

Alan Sinclair
Dark sky at night, brighter sky at dawn.

Malcolm Burn
A chiropodist will not remember you by the colour of your eyes.

Your next challenge is to incorporate the following words (they are real geological terms) into a piece of plausible and entertaining prose so that they acquire a new meaning in the context of your narrative: Corallian, Permian, Lias, Kimmeridge, Oolite, Cornbrash, Ampthill. Please email entries (wherever possible) of up to 150 words to by midday on 18 June.

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  • shiva

    I suppose you’ve never read Orwell. Thought not. More bloody sentimental claptrap.
    پارتیشنتور چین – <a href="" title="کرکره برقی"کرکره برقی

  • El_Sid

    Here’s a twitterbot’s entry :

  • Davidh

    Here’s a Dutch one, also the name of a hit pop song:
    Alles heeft een einde maar een worst wel twee.
    (Everything has an end but a sausage has two.)

  • Michelle Trimborn

    almost worth publishing in a mini book. ingenious contributions.

  • Free Advice

    Time wounds all heels.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    The circus act was damned with faint praise with an ‘oolite’ from the crowd.

    • ArchiePonsonby

      Whereas an Ampthill used to be a town in Bedfordshire!

      • Vote for Change (2nd attempt)

        It was indeed, I know because I went to the Corallian Christian Brothers College there! Closed now, but I do remember my last day, it was an old boys cricket match between the Old Corallians and the Permies (us lot were named after the founder Lias Permian). Our best player Thomas Kimmeridge was knocking the balls everywhere and we lost a few in the cornbrash but he was disqualified for using one of those illegal aluminium bats – the hollow ones filled with air – airlites i think, or O2lites… anyway, good days. TK moved to Oz and we thought he’d be a big cricket star but he became a sheila and started a cooking programme on telly. you can see him/her on youtube on the olive oil spread adverts (just google oolite). The last I heard they’d bulldozed Ampthill – is it still there?

        • ArchiePonsonby

          I used to live relatively close by in Rushden, when the thrill du jour was to take one of the Birch Bros buses to Bedford (Where I took my driving test, after much tearing around Poddington aerodrome, incidentally) for the day or as we became more adventurous all the way to King’s Cross! It went through Ampthill back then. Haven’t been back for many a yonk.

  • global city

    Oolite is a slightly less camp impersonation of Frankie Howard.

  • Benedict

    Quite a few DO have an interesting meaning as far as I can see.

  • Kaine

    “Live like a nettle, die like a lotus.”

    My favourite one I think!

    • balance_and_reason