Connsider the following words of advice addressed to the urban pedestrian:

  1. Look both ways when you cross the street.
  2. Cross at the green, not in between.
  3. descanso

    Good Advice

Like most advice, these variations on a theme have both an explicit and an implicit component. The explicit component advises you to do or to not do something (or in the case of variant #2, both to do something and to not do something else) while the implicit component predicts the consequences of not following the advice. Here, the explicit message is that you should be careful when you cross the street, and the implicit message is that if you aren’t, you may not make it to the other side safe and sound, a point underlined by the descanso bouquet in variant #3 and the elaboration by the F. B. Washburn Company of variant #2: “Look both ways when you cross the street / so you’ll be around to live and eat/ Waleeco, Waleeco / cocoanut bars are the best I know.” The implicit message rests upon the understanding that from the first decade of the 1900s when the terms were originally minted, jay drivers have always trumped jay walkers—jay in this context signifying a silly or stupid person, so called after the characteristic chattering of the bird of that name.

Sometimes the explicit and implicit are reversed, as in “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the implicit advice being to eat an apple a day, the explicit consequence of doing so being good health as evidenced by the absence of house visits from the medical establishment; or “He who hesitates is lost,” loserhood being the spoken consequence of failing to heed the unspoken advice to seize the day. The boundary between advice and proverb is sometimes fuzzy (especially when the advice rhymes, as in variant #2). So are most of the boundaries between adjacent neighbors on the continuum of (expressed) opinion, advice, exhortation, admonition, warning, threat, and command(ment). Indeed, the word advice comes to us through French (cf. Modern French avis ‘opinion,’ Spanish aviso ‘warning’), ultimately from a reworking of the Latin expression vīsum est mihi ‘it looks/seems to me,’ vīsum being a nominal form of the past participle of the verb vidēre ‘to see.’ The differences are basically in the degree of firmness with which an opinion is articulated (and its following is urged), and these differences can be difficult for the recipient to decode, all the more so at second hand.

For example, imagining yourself in Adam’s place, what are you to make of the different renderings in Genesis 2:16-17 of the advice concerning the tree of knowledge? The King James Bible reads “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The New English Bible has “He told the man, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden, but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; for on the day that you eat from it, you will certainly die.'” St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin (Vulgate) version is not altogether illuminating: “praecepitque ei dicens: Ex omni ligno paradisi comede; de ligno autem scientiae boni et mali ne comedas; in quocumque enim die comederis ex eo, morte morieris.”  One standard dictionary glosses praecipere as ‘to give rules, advise, admonish, warn, inform, instruct, teach, enjoin, direct, bid, order,’ from which the following imperative comede (‘Eat!’) suggests we can rule out the warmer and fuzzier items here, though the injunction to not eat (ne comedas) is a form of the (hortatory) subjunctive and, as such, weaker than an out an out order.

The threat of fatal consequences is clear enough in all tellings, though the fact that Adam did not die immediately after eating the forbidden fruit (showing that the consequences of heeding or failing to heed advice don’t always turn out as predicted) could be taken as a sign of forgiveness for his confusion over whether he had been told rather than commanded (or advised, admonished, warned…) to restrict his diet. The fact that in the Hebrew version וַיְצַו [vayitsav] is unambiguously ‘commanded,’ and the injunction against eating from the tree of knowledge (ל תֹּאכֵל [lo tochal] ‘Do not eat!’) is definitely an imperative is not much help for Adam’s monolingual English-speaking (or even bilingual English- and Latin-speaking) avatar when all is said and done.

The advice offered to Adam was unsolicited, was delivered orally (as writing had not yet been invented), and Adam, being at that time the earth’s sole human inhabitant, was the only possible recipient and beneficiary of that advice. Variants #1 and #2 are typically unsolicited and delivered orally as well but are sometimes addressed to a group rather than to an individual. By contrast, the unsolicited advice of variant #3 is delivered in writing and intended for any and all literate street-crossers who find themselves at the intersection. So, what about solicited advice (in oral or written form to the one or the many)? As a form of social interaction, the active solicitation and subsequent delivery of advice can be fairly complex. In its simplest form, a human being A asks another human being B for advice, and B responds:

Bad Advice

Bad Advice

In our next viabrevis posting (“The Agony and the Exposition”), we’ll look at a familiar elaboration of this scenario in which advice is sought and dispensed quasianonymously through the medium of print. Our advice: Stay tuned.