It is better to back out of the middle of the ford than to be drowned in the flood.
Note: This week’s proverb, like many others, may have come from Scotland. The Scots Gaelic version is strikingly similar to the Irish one above. “Is fheàrr tilleadh am meadhan an àtha nà bàthadh uile.” (Better turn mid-ford than be drowned.) “Better wade back mid-water than gang forrat and droun.” — Scots. Better safe than sorry. In any case, this is a proverb that the Gaels share with the Dutch. “Beter ten halve gekeerd dan ten heele gedwaald.”
Note also: Scots Gaelic is nearer to the Ulster Irish dialect than any other. For example, the Ulster version of this proverb is as follows. “Is fearr pilleadh as lár an atha ná bathadh ‘sa tuile.” One of Grimm’s Law states that as languages evolve there is a tendency for the voiceless bilabial stop, p, to change to the voiceless labiodental fricative, f. This implies that the Irish word ‘pilleadh’ is an older form than the standard (caidhgeán) Irish word ‘filleadh.’
The Ulster word is pronounced p’ilu: while the Scots equivalent is pronounced t’ilu:. Both begin with a slender voiceless stop and end with the exact same sound, ilu:. On the other hand ‘filleadh’ begins with a fricative and ends with a schwa, both different from the Ulster and Scots pronunciations. In phonetic spelling given under the seanfhocal above, the schwa looks like an upside down ‘e.’ All three words have the stress placed on the first syllable, typical of Scots Gaelic, caidhgeán Irish, and Ulster Irish. The caidhgeán word, ‘filleadh,’is mostly used in Munster and Connnacht dialects.
Note: We have run into this notion of being bold in your own home before. Is teann gach madra gearr i ndoras a thí féin. It is a common proverb across Europe. For example, “Is ladarna coileach air ótrach fhéin.” — Scots Gaelic. “Every cock craws crousest on his ain midden.” — Scots. “Chein sur son fumier est gardi.” — French. “Cada gallo canta en su muladar.” — Spanish. “Een haan is stout op zijn eigen erf.” — Dutch. “Gallus in suo sterquilinio plurimum potest.” — Latin (Seneca). All of these would translate into English as, “A cock is bold on his own dunghill.”
Note also: Compare the Scots Gaelic (Gàidhlig) proverb to its Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) equivalent.
Gàidlig: Is ladarna coileach air ótrach fhéin. Gaeilge: Is dána coileach ar a atrainn fhéin.
The Scots adapted the Scots Gaelic word “ladarna” for bold or audiacious from the roman word “latro.” Another Scots Gaelic word for bold is ‘dána.’ The Irish Gaelic word ‘atrainn’ is an archaic dative form. Its standard nominative spelling is ‘otrann,’ which also means dungyard as well as farmyard. So you could substitute these words into these proverbs.
Gàidhlig: Is dána coileach air ótrach fhéin. Gaeilge: Is dána coileach ar a otrann fhéin.
This illustrates that at one time these two Gaelic languages were the same language, with minor dialectical variations.
Note: This seanfhocal is very similar to the English proverb, ‘Every dog is a lion at home.’ There are two ways to interpet it. The extreme lion metaphor conjures an image of bravado, a false courage, as in the lion in “The Wizard of Oz,” or Christy Mann in “The Playboy of the Western World.” However, the terrier (madra gearr: literally short dog) subject, a breed known for its intelligence, courage, and tenacity, suggests someone who will defend home and hearth to the death where discretion might prevail elsewhere.
Note also: One could rewrite this seanfhocal, ‘Bíonn gach madra gearr teann i ndoras a thí féin.’ The first few words of this more usual grammatical form tell you that this sentence is about terriers. Suppose, however, you use this week’s alternative grammatical construct, ‘Is [adjective] [noun]…’ Now the first words you hear are ‘Is teann …’ You immediately know that this alternative sentence is about boldness. Therefore, by shifting word order you have naturally shifted emphasis. This method of combining the verb ‘Is’ with a word at the begining of a sentence to show emphasis is called ‘fronting’.
Note: The English language equivalent is “It is better to turn and run away and live to fight another day”. This seanfhocal is handy justification once one has already decided to flee the field of battle. Whatever happened to the concepts of a glorious defeat and death with honor?