June 26, 2016
Be careful what you wish for …
“… You just might get it.”
This is kind of a twofer. First, you have the saying above. Second, there is another saying that may be connected to the first.
What Is the Origin of the First Saying?
From my search, there was no clear origin of “Be careful what you wish for…” but there are plenty examples of this premise in mythology and literature.
One of the first sources I consulted was the TVTropes page with the same name. While TVTropes may be frowned upon as a scholastic source, it contains some helpful information for pop culture references. On the page in question, they have a general explanation of “Be careful what you wish for” was well as links to the usage of this trope. In the literature section, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs.
One of the best sources I found was a blog post by James Love. On the Random bits blog, Love listed a litany of sources, including Jacobs, Goethe, and James Joyce. There were other sources that cited an unknown Chinese proverb as being the source of the saying.
Now, Love says that he could not find any Chinese literature that supported this idiom. However, there is a Chinese proverb that runs into another general proverb. Where does it lead?
The Chinese Proverb in question is 点石成金 (Dian Shi Cheng Jin). This is one meaning (via the Chinasage website):
Diǎn shí chéng jīn [dian shi cheng jin]touch stone accomplish gold
Turn stone into gold
To work something of no worth into something of value
From the Windsor Chinese Academy website, there was some short information about the origins of the Chinese proverb. Apparently, the proverb is connected to a story about Xu Xun from Nanchang. Xuxun was known to turn stone into gold in order to pay his taxes.
The information on Xu Xun Jingzhi is suspect. He was supposedly a Daoist (Taoist) priest who once served as the magistrate of Jingyang County in Sichuan Province at the start of the Jin Dynasty. On two pages I found, his information was mythologized and there was a key contradiction between the period of his birth (during the Eastern Jin Dynasty, which lasted from 317-420) and the time he became magistrate (in 280).
By the way, the real Jin Dynasty lasted from 265-420. It consisted of the Western Jin and Eastern Jin Dynasties (Travel China Guide).
Now, the story may have been preceded by Zhang Daoling and Zhang Heng, who were around during the Han Dynasty. They both learned from alchemist Wei Boyang, who smelt metals out of ore. The saying is closely connected (Windsor).
Additionally, the story of Xu Xun is reminiscent of Greek mythology. King Midas is known as the man who could turn anything he touched into gold. He was granted this ability by Dionysus, the god of wine. However, Midas would soon come to regret his wish.
Now, although the following text is from a kid-friendly version, note the use of the idiom:
DIONYSIUS: Well done, Midas!
MIDAS: (Bowing) Dionysus, what brings you to my vineyard?
DIONYSUS: I have seen the work of kindness you have bestowed upon my friend.
For that you will be rewarded. What is your wish?
MIDAS: My wish?
I wish for gold, gold, wonderful gold!
Whenever I see it I never feel old.
There’s one special thing that will make me feel glad—
That’s to have the most gold a mortal’s ever had!
I wish that everything I touch would turn to gold!
CHORUS 1 & 2: Be careful what you wish for, Midas!
DIONYSUS: But you already have more gold than any mortal could ever need!
MIDAS: Ah, there can never be enough gold! May I have my wish?
DIONYSUS: If that is your wish, then it is granted. Now everything you touch will turn to gold.
Later in the play:
MIDAS: (To the sky) Oh, Dionysus! Rid me of this terrible wish!
DIONYSUS: But you have more gold than any mortal. And you will have even more!
MIDAS: My child. My precious child. Nothing is more important!
DIONYSUS: (Handing Midas a large jar) Very well. Take this amphora. Bring it to the river and fill it with water. Pour it over everything that has turned to gold, and it will be undone.
MIDAS: (Taking the jar) Oh, thank you, kind god.
DIONYSUS: You’re welcome. And Midas?
DIONYSUS: Next time, be careful what you wish for.
From more scholarly texts, the story of Midas varies in the telling. In the above story, he has a wife and daughter. There was mention of a daughter on Greeka.com and GreekMythology.com. There is no mention of a daughter in Mark Cartwright’s article, but there were more stories with Midas in them. The constant in each version, though, was the Dionysus asked Midas if the latter was sure about the wish. There was at least a hit of a warning.
What Does the “Be Careful What You Wish For” Mean?
It’s pretty clear beyond the first exposure to it. Admittedly, it sounded fairly odd when I first read it. “What’s wrong with getting what I asked for?” Everything, if and when you realized that what you think you wanted isn’t as good as you expected it to be or you realize that you were better off before.
This message is pretty clear in “The Monkey’s Paw.” Misfortune came to the couple that wished on it and the White family was warned beforehand. Mr. White also said at one point that he felt that he had all he needed before wishing on the mummified paw. He wished anyway at his peril.
In short, the common lesson from the stories is thus: Greed can lead to you losing what you really value in this world.
How Can This Idiom Be Applied Today?
There are other lessons, depending on the story one is telling. As TVTropes mentioned, a wish for an alternate outcome can really change what makes a person who they are. Also, there are real-life implications when someone wishes for something crazy only to see how crazy it is.
“Be Careful What You Wish For.” TVTropes. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor>.
“Be Careful What You Wish For / Literature.” TVTropes. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/BeCarefulWhatYouWishFor/Literature>.
Cartwright, Mark. “Midas.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited. 29 Oct 2013. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.ancient.eu/midas/>.
“China Jin Dynasty.” Travel China Guide. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/history/jin/>.
“Chinese Proverb: Dian Shi Cheng Jin 点石成金.” Windsor Chinese Academy. 12 Apr 2013. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.windsorchineseacademy.com/chinese-proverb-dian-shi-cheng-jin>.
“Chinese Proverbs about striving towards success.” Chinasage.com. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.chinasage.info/proverbstrive.htm>.
“King Midas.” GreekMythology.com. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Mortals/King_Midas/king_midas.html>.
“King Midas and his touch.” Greeka.com. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.greeka.com/greece-myths/king-midas.htm>.
Pugliano-Martin, Carol. “King Midas and the Golden Touch” Greek Myths Plays. Scholastic Teaching Resources. PDF. Pages 65-66. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/collateral_resources/pdf/48/0439640148_e009.pdf>.
“Wanshou Gong of Jingming Sect.” China.org.cnWiki. Last Modified 24 May 2010. Web. Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://wiki.china.org.cn/wiki/index.php/Wanshou_Gong_of_Jingming_Sect>.
“Xu Xun (Perfect Lord Xu1).” FYSK Daoist Culture Centre Database. Last modified on 24 August 2009. Web.Retrieved 26 June 2016. <http://en.daoinfo.org/wiki/Xu_Xun_(Perfect_Lord_Xu1)>.