Blog 6 When is an old Turkish proverb not an old Turkish proverb?

“There is a famous saying”, Turkish Journalist Sedef Kabaş declared in a live broadcast on the 14th January 2022,  “‘A crowned head will get wiser.’” She continued, “But we see that this isn’t the reality. There is also a saying that is the exact opposite: ‘When cattle go into a palace they don’t become the king, but the palace becomes a barn’.” 

On Friday evening, January 21st, she repeated the saying on Twitter and Instagram, in slightly different form, adding that it was a Circassian proverb (in Turkish: öküz saraya çıkınca kral olmaz, ama saray ahır olur). At 2 a.m. that Saturday morning, she was detained for ‘insulting’ the Turkish President, which is as strong an admission that she’d hit the mark as it’s possible to imagine.

Two days later, Sunday 23rd January, I sat at my kitchen table and read about the arrest. It struck me immediately that the saying also had resonance in the UK’s political moment. I read several translations, with ox, bull, stable, barn and so on and for a second or two, considered settling on the best I could find. But, something didn’t quite speak to our situation. The old rural analogy using a heavy, slow bull or ox in his barn or stable was not a perfect fit, when transplanted to contemporary British politics. I needed something more biting, more apposite. The proverb was quickly reworked and 8.36 a.m. it became:

When a clown moves into a palace, he does not become a king. The palace becomes a circus.

I had in mind, as I’m sure is obvious, partying, cake, games, laughter, chaos, destruction, and constant smirking. I had in mind the fact that a lot of people working around the clown were drawn into the act, willingly or unwillingly. I knew that clown and circus were already a concept cliché for the government Boris Johnson was running. People would know who and what I meant, but this structure would give the insult an air of worldly wisdom. The undeniability of old, settled knowledge.

I was right. The tweet took off. It was pithy enough and short enough to catch. The next evening, Monday 24th January, I noticed that my clown/circus variation had appeared on Facebook, in large font picture form, with the attribution ‘ – Turkish Proverb’. It had been shared dozens of times. Whenever I came across it, I pointed out that it was not in fact a Turkish proverb, but my specific adaptation of one.

On 25th and 26th January, two excellent blue tick accounts with a large number of followers spotted the wrongly labelled ‘Turkish proverb’ post elsewhere on social media and posted it back onto Twitter. I contacted them and both posted a correction. However, their original posts remained, and with very high engagement. Within days, extrapolating from Twitter analytics, well over five million people had seen it with the ‘Turkish Proverb’ attribution, from these two accounts alone, against the mere two million who had by that time seen my first posting of it on 23rd. 

Three days after I had originally posted the tweet, it had broken free of my absurd attempts at control, its meme R-number clearly too high to prevent rampant community transmission. And in fact, it was everywhere I looked now, and it was not just a ‘Turkish proverb’ but an ‘old Turkish proverb’. I pursued a dogged rearguard action to point out that it wasn’t ‘old’ at all, though it did have Turkish ancestry. This was clearly hopeless. A New Old meme had been let out of the bag.  It resonated not only with people in the UK, but also in countries around the world. It was old knowledge laid down not on Sunday 23rd January, but hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. It was human wisdom, owned by nobody. Like many proverbs and wise sayings, it was assumed to be Anon.

Does this matter? As one tweeter said, ‘It’s not like you’ve discovered gravity’. A Facebook charmer declared, ‘You’ve done nothing. Shut up and sit down’. Are they right? Is the success of my version nothing to do with me? The actual old saying with an ox and barn had been in existence for probably hundreds of years and had not made it out of its region of origin. Indeed, that day and for a few days before, it has also been international news, because of Sedef Kabas, and had still not gone viral around the world. It only did that once I had adapted it.  Of course the wisdom was in its structure. I’d just given it a new façade and the update seemed so obvious, it almost felt like it wrote itself. As a friend put it, I simply ‘turned it to face us’. Yet, so rarely the case: I saw the precise moment of creation in my kitchen on a Sunday morning. Less than 24 hours later, I now realise, I had lost all influence on its vectors of existence. The world saw it as an Old Turkish Proverb composed by a wise Anon, not a new version composed by a Twitter smart-arse.

Since that early Sunday morning in January, the use of this new old proverb has been constant and widespread. Easy to monitor, simply by using search facilities on social media websites, I see it attributed as an Old Turkish Proverb, an ancient saying, or simply not attributed at all. People often introduce it with ‘They say that…’. So entrenched in people’s consciousness as a well-known saying of great age has it become, in fact, that one blogger claimed to have thought about it every previous election. One internationally famous writer who likes to trade on wise aphorisms posted it and blocked me for pointing out that this one had been written by me, not him. Other writers and journalists have been more generous and indeed more honest.

On 4th February, Henry Mance used it with impeccable correctness in the Financial Times:

 ‘An adulterated Turkish proverb is doing the rounds: “When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn’t become a king. The palace becomes a circus.” Well, a circus would be more organised than whatever happened in the British government this week. We have a broken swing and a clown who barely has enough balls to juggle with. Cirque du Soleil, this is not.’ 

On February 26, Rachel Sylvester in the Times said that, 

‘Many senior Tories think Johnson’s time is running out and MPs have started quoting an adaptation of a Turkish proverb: “When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn’t become a king. The palace becomes a circus”’

 On 10th July, Andrew Rawnsley, The Guardian’s chief political editor used it in his column: 

“[Boris Johnson]  has provided fresh evidence for the wisdom of an old saw. If you put a crown on the head of a clown, you do not make him a king. You turn the palace into a circus.” 

However, wise as it is, this ‘old saw’ is, in fact, a new one.

Not just our PM at the time, but also leaders right round the world have now been the butt of this saying and as it seems clear that it is here to stay, many more leaders will be stung by it in the future. It fits some better than others. There are also, I note, many companies offering merchandise with it on. You can buy hoodies, T-shirts, baseball caps, fridge magnets, mugs, posters, tote bags, badges, the whole caboodle all inscribed with the phrase I coined. I contacted just one early adopter, Redbubble, and the designer happily changed the attribution from ‘old Turkish proverb’ to my name: Elizabeth Bangs. I haven’t bothered with any others. There are too many.

One way or another, I’ve had to write for a  living. Of all the millions of words I’ve put together, it seems likely that the 18 that make up this new old proverb will be the ones to last well beyond my lifetime. My personal role in creating it will be forgotten of course, and for the vast majority of people, never known in the first place. For myself, however, I like to think that this saying did hit the target it was originally aimed at: it helped to crystallise what people were thinking about Boris Johnson and played a small part in his well-deserved downfall.

2 responses to “Blog 6 When is an old Turkish proverb not an old Turkish proverb?”

  1. I’ve shared this aphorism many times in the belief that it was an old proverb. Thanks for putting me right on its actual origin and huge respect to you for having come up with such a pithy and apposite adaptation.


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