Proverb: When you're in a hole, stop digging - On the dangers of digging (Joel Chandler Harris 1889)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Oct 19 04:03:07 UTC 2010

Charles C Doyle wrote
> On the motif--if not the proverb "When you're in a hole, stop digging" or the phrase "Rule of Holes":
> 1911  _Washington Post_ 25 Oct.:  "Nor would a wise man, seeing that he was in a hole, go to work and blindly dig it deeper, as [William Jennings] Bryan did when he shifted ground and assailed the integrity of the President and the Judges."
> 1893  _Puck_ (New York) 22 Feb.:  "Mindful that our good name goes with our gold, these men have decided it to be good politics to keep the silver question open for the next Congress to shut.  They argue, with a logic peculiarly Republican:  'The country is in a hole; let us dig the hole deeper, and make the sides slippery, so that those whom the people have so unanimously and foolishly chosen to follow us, may have a harder time to pull it out.'"
> --Charlie

Great cites Charlie! Thanks for sharing them.
There is a story in 1889 that arguably is related to the motif of
"When you're in a hole, stop digging". Joel Chandler Harris is famous
and controversial for the folktales he adapted and compiled using the
narrator persona Uncle Remus.

Cite: 1896 (Copyright 1889), Daddy Jake the Runaway: and Short Stories
Told After Dark by Joel Chandler Harris, Page 69-77, The Century Co.,
New York. (Google Books full view)

One tale in a collection with a copyright date of 1889 involves Brer
Rabbit, Brer Coon, and a group of frogs. Brer Rabbit concocts a scheme
to trick the frogs that involves digging a hole. First, Coon pretends
to be sick, collapses, and lies still. Second, Rabbit tells the
skeptical frogs that Coon is dead, and he further suggests that the
frogs should bury Coon so that he will be unable to cause them any
further trouble. The frogs agree and start digging. The frog leader
asks Rabbit about the desired depth of the hole:

"Bimeby big Frog holler: Dis deep nuff? Dis deep nuff?
"Mr. Rabbit 'low: 'Kin you jump out?'
"Big Frog say: Yes, I kin! Yes, I kin!
"Mr. Rabbit say: 'Den't ain't deep nuff.'

This interchange occurs repeatedly. Finally, when the frogs dig a hole
so deep that they cannot jump out Brer Rabbit is satisfied. He
notifies Brer Coon that the frogs are trapped and his meal is ready.

An Aesop-style moral for this story is not given in the text; however,
one plausible moral would be: If you are in a hole stop digging. Yet,
the frogs do not know they are in a hole in the negative metaphorical
sense. They do not know they are in danger. In typical modern uses of
the adage the individual in the hole does know he or she has suffered
a setback or is in a negative situation.

The story does accord well with the 1893 Puck citation given by
Charlie that invokes the danger of being trapped in a hole and being
unaware or imperfectly aware.


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