A Jack of all trades is thicker than water

This is just a small post about sayings that are now abbreviated and have come to mean the opposite of their original meaning. Much like the poor word literally, which leaves me a bit unsure about how to express that I actually mean literally literally, not figuratively literally.

First one is “The customer is always right”. Especially in the US this has taken on a meaning of customers being allowed to abuse staff and make their life as difficult as possible, when it’s actually “the customer is always right in matters of taste”. They want a strawberry mustard cake? You bake it. They think that pink and green make a lovely facade? Let them have it. It doesn’t mean that they get to return a meal they ordered just because they don’t like the plating.

Second one is a “Jack of all trades, but master of none”. It’s used to dismiss people with a broad field of knowledge, but no real speciality. The actual quote is “a Jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than a master of one”. What use is a plumber when your electricity is broken? What use is a car mechanic when you need help in the garden? That’s not to dismiss specialists, but it also means that often a broadly educated and versatile person will be more useful.

An last but not least, the ever favourite “Blood is thicker than water”. The full quote is that “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb”, meaning the exact opposite of the common understanding that blood family is the most important. Most important are your chosen relationships, not those you acquired through birth.

What other sayings come to your mind that have changed?


  1. flex says

    I don’t suppose you have the source of those extended quotations?

    I’ve never heard the extended versions before, and looking them up in Brewer, Partridge, and Funk doesn’t find them either.

    I’m not suggesting they are wrong, but I am very interested in learning the source to see if there are other quotes which are different than those I’m familiar with.

  2. says

    I am a jack of all trades and I do confirm that I am thicker than water. Oftentimes I fell as thick as a yard of lard.

  3. beholder says

    Going for the obvious one. The vacuous and nonsensical “I could care less” means the exact opposite of “I couldn’t care less”, but I hear it used more often nowadays.

    “Shouting fire in a crowded theater”, now understood in its literal sense, is used in freedom of speech contexts as an example of a reasonable restriction on free speech, but it was originally used against Eugene Debs in his 1918 trial as a justification for the anti-sedition clauses in the Espionage Act. Simply giving an anti-war speech was supposed to be restricted.

    Not exactly a saying, but I’ve noticed people are called trolls merely for saying something the group disagrees with, which has morphed from the previously understood meaning of a specific antisocial behavior where someone is trying to provoke negative and entertaining reactions out of others.

  4. Matthew Currie says

    “I could care less” is of course one of the classics. I seem though only anecdotally of course, to have heard it long long ago, but in a question or an ironic form, coming from a fairly specific New York idiom, which made sense. If someone says something trivial or even offensive, and you reply “I could care less?” it becomes a rhetorical question, or an uncompleted “yeah but.” I could care less, maybe, but my not caring is pretty far down there.

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