A language textbook I use quotes the cryptic proverb A stitch in time saves nine. Every semester when I think about explaining its meaning to my class I wonder, “How hard will it be this time?” I used to think it might be cool to dramatize the point by coming to class wearing one of my torn flannel shirts and attempting to sew it up right there in front of students. But I never got around to actually doing that, and last spring vacation my wife threw away all my old shirts. Luckily the book itself has turned into a suitable example since its binding started splitting a few years ago. I can provide a good image of the value of timely problem-solving by just picking up the book and allowing a few pages to fall out.
I sympathize with my students, because when I was a child I had a hard time myself figuring out what “stitching in time” was supposed to refer to. I think I remember some well-intentioned friend telling me: “It’s about baseball: keep your glove webbing laced up tight and win the game for your team…of nine players…or was it the ninth inning?” Even more confusing was the title of a popular young adult novel at the time, A Stitch in Time, which grammatically twisted the phrase to imply that time itself had been torn. I wondered how an idiom whose efficacy depended on science fictional rips in the space/time continuum could be so well regarded.
I don’t know if I was over-analytical—or just dim—but I also struggled with other sayings that everyone else seemed to take for granted. Every time I heard A friend in need is a friend indeed I thought: What’s so wonderful about needy friends? If my neighbor bums $20 off me then says, “Thanks, you’re a real friend,” does that mean I wasn’t his friend until I gave him the money? It took me a while—and a few friends—to figure out that the proverb in full means A friend in YOUR TIME OF need is a friend OF YOURS indeed. So, it actually applies to my needy neighbor instead of me. He gets a true friend and 20 bucks. What do I get?
As with stitch in time, this ambiguity about friends in need has been exploited for creative purposes (much like my neighbor exploited me). A few years ago, one of my favorite American rock bands, the Melvins, wrote a song called “A Friend in Need Is a Friend You Don’t Need.” (The Melvins are well known, if not for the quality of their music, at least for their interesting, relevancy-challenged song titles, like “Gluey Porch Treatments” and “Barcelonan Horseshoe Pit”.)
My point with these abbreviated axioms is that advice-giving clichés like these that have been reduced to shorthand seem to be part of the definition of culture. Different societies have functioned inside their own maxims for so long that no one needs to explain them fully to each other anymore; they become something that everyone just knows. It’s like that joke about the prison inmates who assign numbers to all the jokes they know and entertain themselves by shouting numbers at each other. Or like all those snipped loanwords that people in Japan throw around blithely but outsiders can’t fathom, like kosupa (コスパ = cost performance), fande (ファンデ = foundation), or waahori (ワーホリ = working holiday visa—the first time I heard a student say she was “going waahori” I thought she was talking about turning into Andy Warhol).
So one aspect of culture includes all that good advice that we no longer have to give each other in plain language. To people within a certain culture it goes without saying that No news is good news means world leaders should stop holding daily press briefings; that Even Homer sometimes nods means The Simpsons TV show isn’t as good as it used to be; and that Minu ga hana (みぬが花 = not seeing is a flower) means...I have no idea what it means.
Being able to understand these contextually cropped quips is part of participating in culture. We can interpret all kinds of shorthand within our own culture—in actions as well as in words—but we can easily miss what is being conveyed inexplicitly in someone else’s. So could someone please explain for me the epigrammatic import of ritually throwing out your spouse’s favorite flannel shirts en masse?