Monday, December 19, 2005

More Phrase-ology

There's a long-running debate in my family about one particular expression - one which might be relevant to anyone who, like me, has a blocked up nose at the moment. It's Winter. It comes with the territory.
Anyway, the contentious phrase is this: "Feed a cold, starve a fever."
Pretty well known, pretty widely used by parents and grandparents throughout Britain, at least. And what does everybody think it means? Presumably this: "If you have a cold, eat lots. If you have a fever, don't eat very much at all. That's the way to get better."

OK, fine. The thing is though - THAT'S CLEARLY RIDICULOUS.

Ahem. Let me get my ranting boots on.

In the past I've read a couple of supposed 'medical' justifications of this interpretation, claiming the proverb originates from 16th century medical practice. These explanations are at best very tenuous, at worst very wrong. It's all a misinterpretation of the phrase, which I will now attempt to correct in two stages.

1 - It's not an instruction. Compare the phrase "Act in haste, repent at leisure." It doesn't mean I'm telling you that you ought to act in haste, does it? What it's saying is that IF YOU act in haste THEN YOU WILL HAVE TO repent at leisure. There are many phrases which use the same structure (I've listed a few further down if you need convincing). "Feed a cold..." is another example. They are all "If... then..." sentences:
IF YOU feed a cold THEN YOU WILL HAVE TO starve a fever. It's not an instruction, it's a warning.

Which leads me to my next point.

2 - It's nothing to do with food. It's a metaphor. And it astounds me that people don't realise this. Isn't it obvious? If you 'feed' a cold (by doing things likely to aggravate it, like going out with wet hair on a chilly day) then your cold will develop into a fever, which you will then have to 'starve' (by doing everything you can to fight the illness and stop it getting worse).

Why does it annoy me so much when I hear the phrase mis-used?

Here are some other proverbs with simliar structures. Read them pretending they're instructions and you'll see how stupid they would be if they weren't actually disguised "If... then..." sentences:
"Spare the rod, spoil the child." (It's not telling you to spare your rod and spoil your child is it?)
"Give an inch, he'll take a yard." (Again, is it advising you to give away inches?)
"You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." (An obvious "If... then...")
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
"Waste not, want not." (OK, it could be telling you not to waste anything, but is it also just telling you not to be in want of anything? No. It's saying IF you don't waste anything, THEN you'll not want for anything.)

Obvious stuff, no?
So why does nobody put the obvious "If... then..." into "Feed a cold, starve a fever"?


James Casey said...

Interesting. I wonder if it's because "feed a cold" and "starve a fever" are very similar. The initial word in both phrases COULD be an imperative, the second words are identical, the third closely related. Thus people, I suggest, suppose they are meant to be read as a pair rather the one resulting from the other.

I think the other two, of your examples, closest are "Spare the rod, spoil the child" and "Give an inch, he'll take a yard", but these don't get misinterpreted, I suppose, because 'rod' and 'child' are quite dissimilar and clearly not a pair, and where 'give' might be an imperative, 'he'll take' clearly is not.

John F said...

That's interesting. I always assumed 'Waste not, want not' was a poetic way of saying 'do not waste that which you do not want' - ie, if you're not going to finish those potatoes, I'll have them. Whereas you're suggesting it means if you don't waste things, you'll never be in want of them- ie, even if you don't want those potatoes, eat them up so you won't be hungry later. (or alternatively, don't cook so many potatoes next time, you potato crazed idiot.)Which are two very different ways to avoid being wasteful.

Joe said...

Wow, I've had more emails about this than about any blog entry in the past.

And I have to admit - most people seem to disagree with me. Even my own mother says:

"Feed a cold, starve a fever is a pretty obscure way of passing on the folklore if it means what you say. And anyway, it is tosh. If you feed a cold you will starve a fever. like the fever comes after the cold! No, the fever precedes the cold..."

John, I've never heard that alternative interpretation of 'Waste not, want not'. I like it though. Most poetic, as you say. I suspect, however, my mother would call it 'tosh'. I'll reserve judgement.

But on 'Feed a cold, starve a fever' I'm standing firm.

James Casey said...

I'd not heard John's interpretation of that phrase either. I'd imagine that, the older it is, the more likely 'want' means 'lack'. I've always considered it to mean "if you don't waste things, you won't lack them in future".

marianne said...

Are there potatoes going spare, though?

Miriam said...

I find your rantings very persuasive. The one thing I still don't get, though, is that even if you don't interpret it to be about colds, it still implies that the appropriate treatment of a fever is not to eat. I am suspicious of this. Surely a fever needs potatoes?

Joe said...

No - it IS about colds, it just isn't about food.