Learn and live

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Non Sequitur for 4/25/2018:

Exercise for readers: Is the order "Live and Learn" motivated by meaning or sound?

Here's some background reading from past LLOG posts:

"The order of ancestors", 12/24/2009
"Sexual orders", 12/27/2009
"More models of binomial order", 12/29/2009

And from the linguistics literature:

Yakov Malkiel "Studies in irreversible binomials" 1959
Fritz Staal, Word Order in Sanskrit and Universal Grammar, 1967
William Cooper and John Ross, "World Order", 1975
Steven Pinker and David Birdsong, "Speakers’ sensitivity to rules of frozen word order", 1979
Sarah Benor and Roger Levy, "The Chicken or the Egg? A Probabilistic Analysis of English Binomials", 2006



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 6:30 am

    For me, "live and learn" would appear to be motivated by meaning, although euphony may play a part. The longer one lives, the more one learns. assuming that one is motivated to learn in the first place. "Learn and live" is almost certainly a truism, if one assumes that the alternative is "don't learn and you may well die somewhat sooner than would otherwise have been the case".

  2. BZ said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    Yeah, to me "learn and live" suggests "learn or die". In fact, I'd interpret just about any "[verb phrase] and live" that way as long as "live" is not modified. Now it could be a suggestion, a fact, a threat, but but death is always implied. The only counterexample I found googling is "hurry up and live", but "hurry up and X" is more of an idiom where "hurry up" modifies the X.

  3. cervantes said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 10:27 am

    "Live and learn" is usually uttered to comment on a setback or failure. So yes, the order is dictated by the meaning, which is essentially "at least we have the consolation of being wiser."

    Learn and live would indeed mean that with greater knowledge, we can avoid death. That's plausible, but it's not how the cliche is applied.

  4. Mark said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    I think the "and" here has a conditional sense, as it does in sentences like,
    "Buy a Ford and you'll be smiling for years." So it means "If you live, you're bound to learn," or in other words, lived experience educates.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 6:15 pm

    From a pure-sound perspective, coincidentally or otherwise it does approximate the sequence of so-called ablaut reduplication in English. Obviously the standard examples are e.g. flip-flop rather than flop-flip, but flip-flurp does sound more natural than flurp-flip, doesn't it?

    Does that same sequence make the song title "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)" more euphonious than "Loving Living" etc. would be? What if Led Zeppelin had been more educationally minded, and wanted a maid that prioritized learning over loving?

  6. Viseguy said,

    April 26, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

    "Die and learn" is the eschatologist's motto. "Learn and die", the fatalist's.

  7. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 27, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

    To the linguistic literature may be added:

    Gold, David L. 1991-1993. "Reversible binomials in Afrikaans, English, Esperanto, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Judezmo, Latin, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Spanish, and Yiddish." Orbis. Vol. 36. Pp. 104-118.

  8. S. Valkemirer said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:03 am

    "Learn and live" occurs, but with a meaning, as posters here have noted, different from that of "live and learn."

    For example, "Learn and Live" is the title of an American motion picture made in 1943 and the title of an article by P. Gayle Andrews in Middle School Journal, vol. 39, issue 4, 2008, pp. 56-63.

  9. maidhc said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 3:07 am

    I'd interpret "live and learn" as "as you live, so do you learn". Like the longer I go, the more I understand.

  10. Giodisseo said,

    May 3, 2018 @ 9:50 am

    I smell whiffs of "primum vivere, deinde philosophari", ie you can only comprehend (and reason through causes, mechanism and implications) after you apprehend (and experience phenomena or some prior logical scaffolding thereof).

    If the Latin phrase is in any way part of its pedigree, than I'd say we have an answer: motivated by meaning (direct translation) and rephrased/fossilised by reasons of alliteration and phonoaesthetics.

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