Let us conduct an experiment. I would like you to make a mental list of, say, three or four of the most awful things you can possibly imagine. Do not stint, do not shy away from the power of your mind to summon horrors. For our purposes, your mental flights should be vivid enough for you to feel, physically, in your innards, terror or disgust or nausea or panic or whatever else is appropriate to the hideous visions swimming before you.
Done? Now I will show you how I can offer succour and solace and wipe away your terror or disgust or nausea or panic in an instant. All I need say is: worse things happen at sea. See? At once, however awful your imaginings, you are comforted by the thought that they could be much, much worse, because worse things happen at sea. This must be true, for it is a saw or a saying, it has gained currency by containing at least a germ of truth. That is how a phrase becomes a saying. People repeat it because they recognise a deep truth within it. Oft repeated, it becomes common, familiar to all. So nobody would repeat the phrase worse things happen at sea if it were not true, if, however awful a thing one might imagine, yet something even more awful would happen at sea.
We can easily demonstrate this by comparing it with a different combination of words, a phrase that is never repeated, has not become a saw or saying. All goats cause mayhem, for instance. It is simply said, a doddle to memorise, and in its syntactic structure identical to many a well-known saying. We can imagine it in the mouth of a countryside character speaking in a generic BBC peasant accent. Yet it is not said, because it is not true. Some goats cause mayhem, in particular circumstances, but many more goats do not. So all goats cause mayhem is not a saying. Worse things happen at sea is.
There is one flaw in the design of my experiment. In summoning to mind three or four of the most awful things you could possibly imagine, one or more of them might have been maritime. A shipwreck, for example, or a boy stood on a burning deck, or the emergence from the depths of the many-tentacled gigantic slime-covered monster known as the Kraken. In these cases, for me to say worse things happen at sea would offer no succour nor solace whatsoever. I am, in my terrible imaginings, already at sea, you clot!, you would cry, and justifiably so. Next time I conduct the experiment I will rephrase the premise. I would like you to make a mental list of, say, three or four of the most awful things you can possibly imagine happening on land, perhaps. Though the more astute among the class might guess where I am going with that one.
There is a pleasing universality to the idea that, whatever horror you may imagine or, if you are unlucky, actually experience, you can take solace from the fact that worse things happen at sea. By universality I mean that it is true in all cases. This ought not surprise us when we consider how mind-numbingly vast the sea is. It covers seven-tenths of our pretty globe. We speak sometimes of the seven seas, but in truth there is only one, vast, as I have said, and salty, and wet. Here and there, jutting out from it are land-masses, big and small, from continents to eyots, but they are insignificant in comparison to the sea. It is only to be expected that worse things than you can possibly imagine occur in the vast salty wet briny deep.
The last time I conducted this experiment was to a class of tots at a school community self-esteem ‘n’ diversity-awareness hub to which I had been invited to distribute prizes. Before handing out the gewgaws, I had the tots give vent to their wildest and most horrible imaginings. Hysteria ensued and a paramedic from a nearby clinic had to be rushed to the hall to inject the more frantic tinies. This annoyed me, as I had hoped to bring a sense of calm and the peace that passeth all understanding simply by telling them that worse things happen at sea. Unfortunately, before I had the chance to do so, one precocious tot shot his hand up, begging to say something.
“Yes, yes, what is it?” I shouted in the exasperated voice I tend to assume with precocious tots.
“One of the three or four awful things I have been imagining in my mind’s eye is the Grunty Man. I don’t care what you say, he is equally if not more terrifying than the Kraken.”
“Nonsense!” I rapped back, “The Kraken is a many-tentacled and gigantic and slime-covered monster which comes oozing up from the briny deep and lays waste anything it can lash out at with its many tentacles and it is so huge it can swallow great container ships whole!”
“Yes, I know,” said the infuriating tot, “But the Grunty Man is huge and horrible and hairy and comes forth from his cave or lair and lays waste everything in his path and his roaring is so loud that birds fall dead from the sky.”
“Yes,” said a second tot, without putting his hand up, “And what about the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky? I have been imagining him as one of my three or four awful things, and I am so petrified that I have piddled in my pants. And I am known as the bravest, most courageous tot in the community self-esteem ‘n’ diversity-awareness hub and I am captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work.”
“Now look here -” I snapped, but such was the hubbub, the screaming, the hysterics, the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, the piddling in the pants, that I was drowned out.
“Worse things happen at sea,” I bellowed, unheard. And for the very first time, I wondered if the saw or saying really was true. The scene before me was more awful than anything else I have ever experienced, and we were far inland, very far indeed from the vast wet salty sea.