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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

From the Geil Archive (13)—Out of the Frying Pan

[a] Mini Grove RF
Today's Round and Square Guest Contributor is Rachel Johnson. Rachel, from Burr Ridge, IL, just graduated from Beloit College with a BA in anthropology and a minor in Asian Studies. She was introduced to William Edgar Geil through a course taught by Rob LaFleur, and she is currently working in Doylestown, Pennyslvania with four other interns to digitize his archives with the Doylestown Historical Society. She and Geil share a mutual love of travel and of Chinese history and culture in particular, which is what drew her to study him further.

Click here for Rachel Johnson's other posts in the series "From the Geil Archive"
             1-About Me                    2-Naming (Un-)Conventions                3-Out of the Frying Pan
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Please note that all items marked "DHS" are property of the Doylestown Historical Society, and used with DHS permission. If you wish to use an image, you need permission of the Society. Please contact Robert LaFleur (, and he will put you in contact with the appropriate people.

          A rolling stone gathers no moss.
          You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
          Still waters run deep.
[b] Unstill RF

Proverbs are a universally renowned teaching tool. Every country and every culture has them. But how can something so fundamentally intertwined with language be universal? After all, would a non-native English speaker understand the meaning behind “a stitch in time saves nine,” even if they understood each individual word in the phrase? If one had never before seen a lemon, wouldn’t the phrase, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” lose something in explanation?

And what, you are undoubtedly asking yourselves, does all of this have to do with William Edgar Geil?

As it turns out, Geil took quite an interest in proverbs himself, taking time to stop and write down proverbs in their native tongue as he heard them, especially in Africa during his Great World-wide Tour, and translating them as best he and his translators could.And as he does so, a pattern begins to emerge.

While proverbs undoubtedly have a strong connection with language their true power lies in meaning, and in the ability to teach a lesson that will be remembered for life with just a few simple words. And there are some lessons everybody is taught, no matter what language they speak. Geil hits upon that time and again with the proverbs he records.
[c] Steps RF

Take, for instance, “sitting down won’t finish your journey,” a proverb he records while in Uganda, along with his transcription of the original,“Okuwumula si kew kutaka.” (All quotations from Geil are transcribed herein exactly as they were written in his manuscripts. I hereby absolve myself of any blame for the butchering of any languages other than English [or Chinese] in this post.) The English language has a very similar proverb---”the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Except, of course, that this particular proverb has its origins in Chinese culture and is attributed to Lao Tzu (or Laozi), and would have originally read, “a journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet,” (千里之行,始于足下). 

In fact, Geil was often very aware of these similarities. Just under his transcription of “Nambere nyineka atalieikere bitemba enju,” or, “When the master of the house is away, the frogs will climb up the thatch,” he writes, “i.e. When the cat’s away the mice will play.” And on the backside of one of his manuscript pages, he scrawls in pencil the very note which inspired this post, (and which he later quotes in A Yankee in Pigmy Land): 

“Airukire enjura omu rufunjo, 
He runs from the rain into the papyrus
Out of the frying pan into the fire.” 
[d] Fuzzy DHS
Of course, to some extent proverbs are, along with poetry, lost in translation. They are often so intrinsically linked to a particular turn of phrase, cultural or historical context, or even location that they cannot always fully carry over into another language or another culture. And, of course, we have only Geil’s interpretations of these proverbs to go off of, and we must keep in mind that he did not himself know the languages he was writing down.

However, it is my belief that Geil was on to something. Something he could never quite internalize or vocalize, but which seemed to speak to him through these proverbs he so meticulously recorded. He has stumbled upon a sort of social universalism, the idea that regardless of geographical location, religion, language, race, or any of the other factors that seem to separate us (in the broader sense of humanity as a collective) there are some lessons that everybody learns, some truths that are universal and unavoidable...such as the age-old belief that a situation, if left to its own devices, will go from bad (the frying pan or the rainstorm) to worse (the fire or the papyrus grove).
[e] After the storm RF

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