Probably the best answer to the question in the title of this week’s column is, “We don’t know.” However, the person who misquoted an old nursery rhyme and turned it into the saying, “as wise as an owl” didn’t do us any favors.
The original nursery rhyme, by the way, simply said, “There was an owl who lived in an oak, wisky, wasky, weedle.”
I don’t think I’d have gotten much out of it if Mom had tried it on me.
A revision of that nursery rhyme appeared in a magazine in 1875:
A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Now, wasn’t he a wise old bird?
Hey! That really says something about wisdom, doesn’t it? It goes along with a saying I heard while in Air Force blue: “You can learn a lot more sitting down and listening than you can standing up and broadcasting.”
Amen to that, right?
However, neither of those nursery sayings claims that all owls are wise. Nor does any study of owls support that misconception. In fact, as one reference plainly says it, “Owls are not the most intelligent of birds.”
However, I can swear to the fact that at least one old saying which contains an “as” is absolutely true. How come? I learned about it the hard way.
Which one? “As angry as a hornet.” Wow! Did I learn how true that was!
I’ll tell you about it. Our great 19th century, white painted wooden house at 220 Huntington Street in New London stood at the crest of a broad hill that rolled up from the Thames River a half mile away.
The road behind ours, atop the hill, was Hempstead Street. Just behind our house and across Hempstead Street was a field containing several trees, including an ancient black beech that looked eminently climbable to a 12-year-old. Plus which, around the trees stood a dense thicket of saplings and heavy brush that was like a magnet to a kid who had just moved up from New York City, which, as you may have noticed, does not abound in wilderness.
One evening after supper I was searching the edge of that brush for a way to get to the old beech tree and climb it. However, New London lacked neither rain nor sunshine, and that brush was about as thick as brush can get.
At last, however, I spotted a very low path beneath the brush that looked like it might run back to that big old beech. Crouching down almost flat on my stomach, I slithered into the path, keeping my head well down. However, just 100 feet into the brush, the path dead-ended. Disappointed, I started to turn around, but I heard a loud buzzing just a few feet behind me.
Slowly — very slowly! — I rolled over onto my back, and my heart almost stopped as I spotted a hornet’s nest hanging just a few feet down the path from my feet. I must have shaken the brush — and the nest too, I suppose — as I crawled along, but luckily for me the angry hornets swarming out of the nest were headed down the path toward the outside of the brush instead of toward me.
Then began one of the great learning experiences of my life. I could plainly see that going back down that path was out; so how the devil was I going to get out of there?
Next week. A lesson learned.