Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Only once have I visited a drydock, but I immediately understood what the Dutch expression spijkers op laag water zoeken (“searching for nails in pools”) means. Standing on a scaffolding, some carpenters were preparing the hull of a yacht, and they had dozens of nails with them. When a nail fell to the ground, it was rather silly to go downstairs and look for it, if only because the nails usually dropped into pools and were invisible. I could imagine that one day, the dock’s manager checked those pools, took the nails, presented them to his workers, complained, and ignored that they had actually been able to finish a hull that day. Ever since that day, the carpenters must have said that someone was “searching for nails in pools” when he was focusing on minor errors.

I took this proverb as the title of my book on common errors, because I did not want to suggest that all mistakes were really serious. Two of my best friends believe that the title is wrong, because people will not understand  its  self-deprecating nature. My publisher and another friend believe that the irony will be understood, so in the end I agreed, although some nagging doubt remains.

And there is another doubt. Are the mistakes I am dealing with really that innocent? Many of them certainly are, but if professional scholars repeat them, addressing the problem is not searching for nails in pools, but saying that our academics have become too specialized to have a good view of the entire field.

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2 Responses to Spijkers op laag water

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    Many mistakes are just carelessness and laziness, parroting what someone has said before, back to the first person who made it: but if the mistake were repugnant to me, I wouldn’t repeat it so easily — so there’s an element of acquiescence even there.

    But many mistakes are not mistakes at all, but intentional and part of an agenda; or at least that first person’s agenda, after which they propagate like any other meme, its success having little to do with truth and a lot to do with how its nooks and crannies hook up with our own, much like viruses.

    (Parenthetically, I hope you researched very carefully the origin of “nails in pools”, and didn’t fall into a popular aetiological explanation of the proverb! That would become a self-referential title…. Several proverbs and common expressions have the most surprising origins, nothing like what might be assumed; and others are very obscure. For example, the French “se moquer de qqch. comme de l’an quarante”, which almost certainly has nothing to do with the Year 40.)

  2. Justin says:

    When I was a carpenter I would rip old shingles off roofs and replace them. And sometimes no matter how hard I tried to keep the debris from falling into the driveway, a nail fall into the road and cause a flat tire for the foreman or the client.
    We kept 99% of the old nails from falling in the road, but all it took was one moment of carelessness to give someone else a serious headache instead of a job well done.
    So I think it’s a good title, because all mistakes are serious to some degree even if good intentions cause them.

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