On the saying, “Don’t take any wooden nickels”

When we were about to leave my grandparents’ house, my Grandpa Dunkel used to say, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” Even though there is no general consensus among linguists regarding the provenance of the expression, its connotation is clear enough: Beware of cheaters and con artists. Keep your eyes open because you’re about to step forth into a world of dupes.

The dramatis personae are a wise grandfather and a towheaded youth. The former knows the difference between the true and the counterfeit, a good deal and a raw one, and knows also that one shouldn’t let greed and temptation overpower caution and self-control. The latter may have some inkling of all this, may have some abstract notions of “true” and “counterfeit,” may also desire to know the difference between the two, yet he lacks the experience and, because of this, the judgment.

The scene is too Rockwellian for our tastes and, for all that, not true to life. Anymore we don’t look to elders for guidance and wisdom. That’s because they are not elders but the elderly, demented, depressed, and immobile. Their lives, as the eldercare psychologist Ira Rosofsky nicely put it, are “nasty, brutish, and long.”

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