"Other Irons In The Fire"

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Context: The belief that it is wise to have more than one project working at any given time is firmly seated in proverbial lore. It was widely referred to in Elizabethan times–Westward Hoe, a comedy by Webster and Dekker (1607, Act I, sc. ii.) says: "There's other irons in the fire"; John Chapman, in Widow's Tears (1612), gives a variant: "I have other irons on the anvil." It has been popular down to today. Its opposite, however, as is often true of proverbs, is widespread: that is, counsel against trying to do too many things at one time, in the proverb: "Many irons in the fire, part must cool," which dates back at least to the middle of the sixteenth century. In America, Thomas C. Haliburton said (The Clockmaker; or The Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville, 4th ed. London, 1838, p. 309): "There's a plaguy sight of truth in them are old proverbs. They are distilled facts steamed down to an essence. . . . Now when you come to see all about the country you'll find the truth of that are one–'A man that has too many irons in the fire is plaguy apt to get some on 'em burnt.'" Aristophanes' counsel is of the desirability of having more than one project going at one time. The following is a fanciful translation (which literally discusses a merchant in Athens who in time of war creates a peace by ingratiating himself to both sides, especially by frying small fishes in skillets over charcoal) and is similar to "many fish to fry."

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He works and blows the coalsAnd has plenty of other irons in the fire . . .

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