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I am trying to think of a quotation, or it might be an anecdote or idiom. It is about a person who has been doing a certain activity for many years, and then learns for the first time that what they have been doing is called X. (I can't remember what X is.)

The point is that the person was actually very competent at doing X, but just didn't know what it was called. There is a sort of implied moral of the story, that being clever and knowing the words for things is fine, but actually doing the thing without making a fuss, and being modest and good at it, is even better.

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  • Aesop? Or A. A. Milne? Any way you can give more details from your research?
    – livresque
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 19:45
  • I tried googling a phrase like the one in the question, but I couldn't find anything. It is not likely to be Aesop or A A Milne. It might possibly be from Mark Twain. I think it is from the 19th or 20th century.
    – Oliver882
    Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 19:50
  • Actions speak louder than words? Commented Nov 25, 2022 at 23:30
  • No, it was about a specific person. The answer below is what I was thinking of.
    – Oliver882
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 8:25

1 Answer 1

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This sounds like Molière's 1670 play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (translated variously, as The Middle Class Gentleman or similar titles), in which Monsieur Jourdain was surprised to discover that he had been speaking prose his entire life!

(So this is actually from French literature, not English literature.)

Here's the passage, copied from the translation by Philip Dwight Jones at Project Gutenberg:

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Please do. But now, I must confide in you. I'm in love with a lady of great quality, and I wish that you would help me write something to her in a little note that I will let fall at her feet.

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Very well.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: That will be gallant, yes?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Without doubt. Is it verse that you wish to write her?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: No, no. No verse.

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Do you want only prose?

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: No, I don't want either prose or verse.

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: It must be one or the other.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: Why?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Because, sir, there is no other way to express oneself than with prose or verse.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: There is nothing but prose or verse?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: No, sir, everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: And when one speaks, what is that then?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Prose.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: What! When I say, "Nicole, bring me my slippers, and give me my nightcap," that's prose?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Yes, Sir.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it, and I am much obliged to you for having taught me that.

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    Thank you. That is it!
    – Oliver882
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 8:24
  • And the point isn't just that M Jourdain learns a word for what he's been doing. The overriding point is his foolish pretension and misplaced pride.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 26, 2022 at 23:13
  • @Drew Thanks. He doesn't sound very pretentious or proud in the above extract. But it sounds like I was wrong about the point or moral of the story
    – Oliver882
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 9:14
  • @Oliver882: No, you weren't wrong - it's both.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 15:39

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