I recently wrote about the cantankerous comic strip character, Ed Crankshaft, and of the way he invariably gets old sayings wrong by garbling the words.
Likely, most Crankshaft readers harbour the notion that no actual person would ever make the kind of language mistakes that he does. But, on March 24, this gem was aired on the CBC, “It’s a bridge you come to when you cross it.”
This is not what the saying states and not even the intended meaning of the speaker.
Rather, it’s about not crossing bridges till we reach them; that is, not agonizing over something that hasn’t yet happened.
The person who turned the old saying on its ear was an NDP convention organizer whose name I failed to catch. She’d been asked about possible difficulties involving the innovative online voting system and was trying to tell the interviewer that they’d deal with glitches if and when they happened.
As it turned out, problems did plague the voting system and those convention organizers, having come to the bridge were forced to cross it.
Oxford’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says, “To cross that bridge when one comes to it is to deal with a problem when and if it arises.” Oxford provides no explicit date for the origin of this adage but dates its first appearance in print as mid-nineteenth century. This source also calls it a ‘proverbial’ saying.
Variations such as, “Let’s not cross ...,” retain the original sense and are modified to fit the context of what’s being said.
The Dictionary of Clichés, by James Rogers, suggests, “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it ... is a proverb of such ancient vintage that Oxford does not trace its origin.”
Ancient or not, like all proverbs, this one imparts good advice: It’s not only futile but is also stressful to worry about something before it happens.
But can a saying be called a proverb if it isn’t ancient?
The answer is, “Yes. It certainly can.” Proverb is defined as, “A short, pithy saying in frequent and widespread use, expressing a well-known truth or fact.”
The Biblical Book of Proverbs is part of the Old Testament. In its 31 chapters, some 900 proverbs are provided — proverbs such as, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise,” and, “A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance,” and, “A fool’s mouth is his destruction.”
“Don’t cross that bridge till you come to it,” isn’t in The Book of Proverbs although it could be. It is that kind of saying and that kind of advice.
It’s also exactly the sort of saying Scarlett O’Hara might have adopted for her own. Scarlett, heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind, always told herself when things went wrong, “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.” In other words, Scarlett refused to cross bridges until they loomed up to confront her.
“Don’t cross a bridge until you come to it,” is good advice — for conference organizers and for you and me.