Pissed-off Toff

Quiz 2: the answer

in And for a Laugh...

In which Pissed-off Toff provides the answer to his second quiz and names the winner.

In the second edition of my quiz, I asked readers whether they knew of any bona fide English equivalent of the Italian expression chiedere all’oste se il vino è buono. I failed, in fact, to quote the full expression, which goes è inutile chiedere all’oste se il vino è buono. Meaning, roughly: There is no point in asking the inn-keeper whether his wine is all right.

What this attractive expression from the north of Italy neatly sums up is the concept that whilst it is perfectly sensible to wish to know whether such-and-such a product is any good, the one person you should not turn to for advice is the man selling that product. Because he will always tell you that it’s the best and that you would do well to buy it, straight away.

To illustrate this, let us now move to the fair land of France … because the locution we are looking at expresses a truth which applies throughout the world. You are seated at a table in a restaurant in the Auvergne. With the proprietor standing attentively nearby, pen hovering over notepad, you ask whether he would recommend the slightly pricey Beaujolais which features on his wine-list.

“The Beaujolais?” he replies with an ingratiating smile. “I see that Monsieur is a man of taste and distinction. An excellent choice, if I may say so. Quite excellent! I’ll go and get a bottle now. One of our very last, as it happens. Monsieur is in luck!”

I can think of no establishment in which the proprietor would say anything very different. Would he say: “Our Beaujolais? Frankly, it’s little better than cat’s piss, and grossly overpriced too. As are most of our other wines. But you will appreciate that we have to make a living, somehow, off the suckers who pass through our doors.” Would he say that? No, he wouldn’t.

* * * * *

It was gratifying to get a decent response this quiz question. A response which caused me to reflect that for the time being at any rate, my readers are perhaps now familiar enough with my view that the Covid crisis is mass hysteria, that the so-called ‘man-made global warming crisis’ is bunkum, and that Boris Johnson is a dangerous fraud who would not hesitate to bring ruination on the whole country in exchange for a single day of positive coverage in the media. Perhaps, I thought, a little entertainment was in order.

The first submission – and, as it turned out, the most erudite – was a saying in Chaucerian English. “For to a folysshe demaunde behoueth a folysshe ansuere,” it runs. Meaning, of course: A foolish question deserves a foolish answer. Or, in more modern parlance: Ask a silly question, get a silly answer. But as I wrote to my correspondent, this English saying does not cover the whole sense of the Italian expression, which is that the question asked of the inn-keeper is not silly; it is merely misdirected.

Other suggestions were as follows:

“Ask no questions, hear no lies.” Well, no. That doesn’t do it at all.

“Barking up the wrong tree.” That means to be following a misguided line of enquiry. But I’d say that to ask whether the wine is OK is not a misguided line of enquiry. It’s a perfectly sensible question.

“Is the Pope a Catholic?” This doesn’t do it either, since it is a rhetorical question, meaning an emphatic Yes. Whereas the tired traveller in the inn is not asking a rhetorical question. His is a question to which he does not know the answer.

“Is the fish fresh?” We’re getting there, perhaps. But that is not an idiomatic expression or a common saying. It’s just a question, and no more idiomatic than “How much does this cabbage cost?”

And finally, before we get to the winning entry, we had “Would a turkey vote for Christmas?” This is a rhetorical way of saying No. Which led me to imagine the following slightly hallucination-inducing exchange between the inn-keeper and our weary traveller:

Weary traveller: “Tell me, my good man, is the wine you sell here drinkable? Would I do well to purchase a bottle of it? Or allow me to put it another way: Would a turkey vote for Christmas?”

Inn-keeper: “Absolutely not.”

* * * * *

Enough of that. We move on to what must be the correct answer to my quiz question … a nice English idiom which I did not know existed, but which perfectly covers the full meaning of the Italian idiom under consideration.

Three people provided it, one of them based in South Africa. The twenty-pound note goes to the chap who got there first … a certain Jamie P, of Edinburgh.

The answer is:

“Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.”

Dating back to at least the early years of the twentieth century, this is a bona fide American expression. That it has genuine currency is attested to by the fact that in the USA it appears, with slight variations, on T-shirts, coffee cups and bumper stickers. It is surely the exact equivalent of my Italian expression, because just as the inn-keeper is in the business of selling wine, so the barber is in the business of selling haircuts; and neither, if he has any sense, will discourage a potential customer.

Not only does the American expression refer, like its Italian counterpart, to an old-fashioned trade with which we are all familiar, but it also happens to be a favourite of the legendary investor Warren Buffett.

As Buffett knows, if he rings a municipal bond salesman to ask what municipal bonds are looking like today, he will invariably be told that they are looking good; very good indeed, and now would be just the right time to buy. If he rings a mutual funds specialist, he will be told that in order to put his mind at rest, he should increase his weighting of mutual funds, straight away. And if he rings a bullion salesman, he will learn that in order for his happiness and security to be complete, he should buy gold, before it’s too late.

Thus with our weary traveller sitting at that table in northern Italy. He asks about the wine. And he is invariably advised to buy it.

* * * * *

Thank you to everyone who wrote in. I think we should have more of these quizzes.

Click here to print this article (text only).