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The Reality of Popular Sayings: An Investigation by the CMSR

Text by Alejandra Ortiz Medrano

Illustrations by Carolina Rios, Flavia Zorrilla and Abril Castillo

We go through life repeating popular sayings to validate certain actions or events that occur, without ever stopping to wonder if these phrases really make sense. The Center for Moderately Serious Research (CMSR) knows that it is clear that these phrases are not literal, but our commitment to the moderate seriousness led us to put some of these sayings to the test. Here are the findings.

For starters, we distilled one giant database of sayings and proverbs. The main criterion was that the sayings had to be testable given the meager (material) resources of CMSR. One of people’s favorite phrases is the motivational “camarón que duerme se lo lleva la corriente” (You snooze, you lose) . 1  We would have loved to test its truth, but to do so we would have had to have at least three shrimps and a device to simulates currents. Needless to say we couldn’t even get a fishbowl. So we ended up with five sentences, of which below follows a synthesis of the methodology, results and conclusions.


Illustration by Carolina Rios

En boca cerrada no entran moscas  (Loose lips sink ships / silence is golden) 2

It is clear that flies cannot enter any orifice or closed structure, including a mouth. But here the scientific question is whether less flies enter a closed mouth than in an open one, otherwise the phrase wouldn’t have any relevance and could be expressed as flies don’t enter in mouths.

We found 15 volunteers among the team of moderately serious researchers. Ten of them entered a room with 50 flies for 15 minutes; half of the volunteers kept their mouth shut the entire time, and the other half kept theirs open. Meanwhile, the remaining five volunteers were placed in various uncontrolled sites, such as in a hall of the CMSR or at home, and were asked to keep their mouth open for 15 minutes.

Twenty observers recorded the number of times a fly entered any mouth. Then we conducted statistical analyses that confirmed our hypothesis: no fly entered a closed mouth, while in the open ones there were enough instances to make the difference meaningful. However, no flies entered the mouths of the five volunteers in uncontrolled conditions. Our conclusion is that although it is rightly true that flies do not enter a closed mouth, it is very unlikely that they will do so in an open one as well.

Más rápido cae un hablador que un cojo (A liar is sooner caught than a cripple) 3

In the literal sense, the experiment involves a competition between a loudmouthed person and a cripple. This entails several challenges, including assessing the “loudmouthedness” of someone. For this we developed a computational algorithm using information requested from Facebook that showed us how much our researchers commented on the photos of others. The algorithm therefore created an index of “loudmouthedness,” giving greater weight to comments that tagged third parties. Thus were elected three loudmouthed individuals to compete against three cripples, the latter of which were summoned through an ad posted on various national newspapers. Three more people with a random index of loudmouthedness were selected to take part in the race.

The race consisted of a 100-meter dash with all six contestants simultaneously. The loudmouthed contestants beat the crippled by an overwhelming difference, the latter falling several times during the course of the race. The difference, however, between loudmouthed and random people was not significant, so we conclude that a loudmouthed person does not fall faster than a cripple, neither before nor after any other person; the loudmouthedness condition does not affect the falls.

Llamarada de petate (Flash in the pan) 4

The duration of the famous llamarada de petate is presumed to be very short, but we do not know if indeed a straw burns for less time than other materials. This experiment, like other classic ones in science, was the simplest but also the most conclusive of those we carried out. We chose 500g (dry weight) of grass, wool, paper and straw. Each material was lit in an aluminum pan and we timed for how long the fire burned. We then proceeded to the statistical comparison.

The straw, redundancies aside, lasted what the saying suggests: a flash. The fire of this material lasted less than half of that of the following quickest burning material, grass, followed by paper and wool. Our conclusion is that the saying about the llamarada de petate is the most accurate and most literal that we tested, and, we dare say, the most accurate and literal one in the entire Spanish language.

La mona aunque se vista de seda, mona se queda (A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey / You can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear) 5

The philosophical question underlying the test of this proverb is when does a being cease to be what it is? How to determine when it ceases to be? After several discussions we agreed that the evaluator should be the very same subject being experimented on; there would be no better judge to determine when one ceases to be than he who is experiencing this detachment and transformation. However, given our constraints in materials, and although the ordinary meaning of “mona” is that of a female ape, at CMSR the test was designed so “mona” would be a rag doll. The results were inconclusive since a rag doll has no consciousness of itself (or anything else), and the moderately serious researchers that sought to determine whether it had ceased to be a rag doll after wearing a silk dress concluded that it could not be determined.


Illustration by Flavia Zorrilla

Todo cabe en un jarrito sabiéndolo acomodar (Everything fits in a little pot if properly arranged) 6

The main problem in this experiment was to define the “everything,” which in its strict sense is immeasurable and incomprehensible, therefore impossible to accommodate in a pot. As in any science, we chose to simplify reality in a model, which in this case was everything we found on the worktable of CMSR. Everything in this experiment consisted of: three notebooks, an apple’s core, two scarves, seven pencils, a nail file, the book Tools for Thought by Waddington, two debit cards, a cup of black tea, and a flowerpot with a succulent plant. As a pot, we chose one from Tlaquepaque.


Illustration by Abril Castillo

By simply observing the volume of the pot and everything on the table, we knew it would be impossible to accommodate everything in a pot. We did, however, attempt it. We managed to fit the apple’s core, one scarf, all pencils, the nail file, the bag of black tea and the soil of the succulent plant. The main problem was that the narrow mouth of the pot prevented the entry of many of the components of “everything.” It was not necessary to perform statistical analyzes in this experiment since the outcome was dichotomous:  either everything fits into a pot knowing how to arrange it, or it doesn’t. The answer is it doesn’t, despite the fact that “everything” was simplified.

General Conclusion

The relevance of proverbs and popular saying has no correlation with its scientific validity. The CMSR’s recommendation is to continue using these phrases, as well as to continue using the scientific method as a form of entertainment.

1. Literally: the shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current.

2. Literally: flies don’t enter a closed mouth.

3. Literally: a loudmouth falls faster than a cripple.

4. Literally: the flash of a palm straw.

5. Literally: a nun dressed in silk is still a nun.

6. No English equivalent found; literally: everything fits in a pot if you know how to arrange it.

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