Is It an Idiom or a Proverb?

woman wearing gray scarf and gray coat near group of people
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My mother, who has dementia, has a small repertoire of phrases she repeats.

When I enter her bedroom each morning, she asks, “Is it time to get up?”

When I tell her the time, she says, “I might as well stay in bed.  There’s no reason to get up.”

Then she rises and sits on the side of her bed complaining, “My head is spinning like a top.”

I tell her to take her time.

When she transfers from the bed to her wheelchair she drops and comments, “I don’t sit down, I fall down.”

This conversation is identical every morning and continues all day.  I can predict what she will say while I dress, feed, and care for her.  Every day is like the previous one.  We never have conversations because her ability to converse is gone.  I ask her questions, and her answers are the same.

When she talks to strangers the script is predictable.  She tells them I am her son and begins an often-repeated story how she had two boys, tried for a girl, but got my twin brother and me.  (I never liked that story).

“When you start getting them two at a time, it’s time to quit,” is how the story ends.

Then she tells them that with four boys she did a lot of baking, but she doesn’t bake anymore.

“If it doesn’t go in the microwave, I don’t buy it,” is her standard comment.

Never mind that she not only doesn’t microwave anymore, but she doesn’t grocery shop either.  To the casual observer her comments seem reasonable, but to me, they aren’t.

She is responding like a doll that talks when you pull the string.  There are only a limited number of things it says.  The ability for her to process incoming language and express new thoughts is gone.  That part of her brain is permanently damaged.  Instead, she can only retrieve habitually repeated phrases and comments from the past.

In her younger years when she was raising children, she used idioms.   She called them “sayings.”  For instance, I remember saving money from my paper route for a bike.


While predicting my income, she warned, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”


“Two heads are better than one,” was her comment when I snubbed her advice.


I learned a lot of phrases like those from her.  Some of her favorites were:


“Don’t sit on the fence,” – decide

“From the horse’s mouth,”- directly from the source

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” -be thankful regardless of the gift.  This phrase took me a while to figure out.  It comes from the horse and buggy days.  Looking at a horse’s teeth could determine its approximate age.  To view in its mouth was to question the value of the gift.

“Don’t cry over spilled milk,” – get over it

“A place for everything and everything in its place,” was quoted when we didn’t put things away.


Longer idioms are called proverbs.  In the book of Proverbs Solomon wrote short quotable phrases that are concise but transmit a higher thought.  For instance, “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you,” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  He also wrote, “…the honor of old men is their gray hair.”


Mom’s hair is gray, and now so is mine.  Many of us silver-haired baby boomers are caring for our parents with dementia.  We are doing a good thing.


Be encouraged by this proverb from Solomon, “He who waters will himself be watered.”  Proverbs 11:25 NASB.


This means God will care for people who care for others.


© Copyright 2018 Ronald Milburn