King For a Day

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 3

Occasionally, you hear a word or phrase that sounds so idiomatic or proverb-like that you assume it is one. In 1995 punk band Faith No More's released an album whose title felt that way to me: King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime.

Turns out, I was half right.

King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime came out when I was in my late teens and I thought it was the coolest album name I had ever heard. I liked the way it played with the conventional idiom, king for a day, by adding the counter-weight of fool. But it was just a title. The album itself, with its - for Faith No More - standard mix of rock, punk, jazz, funk, and everything else, made no explicit reference to either kings or fools. Much as the previous album’s title, Angel Dust, had been comprised of two words that were innocent enough when separate became something horribly different when combined, King… took two contrasting ideas and combined them to make a statement about something terribly true.

King for a day, as an idiom, is a very popular concept. ( Wikipedia's disambiguation page has several dozen pieces of media that share that title with little thematically to tie them altogether beyond said title.) By itself, it is usually used to mean someone who has gotten absolute power, through luck, connivance, or circumstance, for just a short period of time. Other times, it is combined with the conditional “if I were” or “if you were” to create a space for hypothetical flights of fancy, e.g., if I were king for a day, I’d make everyone wear silly hats.

But the full phrase, “king for a day, fool for a lifetime” seems to have been coined by the band and doesn’t exist as a separate idiom or proverb at all, much to my surprise.

Which is a bit of a shame.

I like the idea behind "king for a day." I like the idea of taking a person from a position with little relative power and giving them all the power, just to explain, viscerally, what it would be like. For example, I tend to think CEOs are overpaid, but would I still think so if I spent a day in their shoes? For that matter, what would it be like to be president or prime minister for a day?

Now pair it with “fool for a lifetime.” It implies that even someone who has been at the top, no matter how briefly, is unable to learn from the experience and is no wiser than they were before. That might be true. I hope it isn't. And yet, so much of who becomes king (or CEO or President or General) seems to be based on factors that have little to do with wisdom ranging from DNA to connections to right-place, right-time. Even still, surely these lucky few understand where they're coming from and have the capacity to learn from it, right? One can only hope.

So, if I were king for a day, what would I do? I’m not really sure. Lofty ideals and the constraints of time and space notwithstanding, I’d try to do some good in the world and hope that the experience would leave me somewhat less foolish, even if only temporarily.

“King for a Day.”

Use Case(s) / Pedantry

Let's talk about the subtle but important difference between "king for a day" and "king for the day." In my view, the definite article (the) lends an air of importance to the day in question meaning that there might be more reason for someone becoming a temporary king. Maybe there's a ceremony or an event that needs a leader. Conversely, by using "a" we suggest that maybe the actual date isn't important and maybe this person became leader on accident for something that just happened to occur rather than a specific time.

Notable Events of the year 1995

Calvin and Hobbes, Dec. 31, 1995, screenshot.

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King of America

In college, I got deep into the music of one Declan Patrick MacManus, aka Elvis Costello; I'm of the generation for whom Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Greatest Hits CD was required listening and poorly strummed versions of Allison could be found floating down the hallway of every dorm on campus. Not content with just the greatest hits, I decided to go back to the beginning and work my way through the entire catalog. When I got to 1986's King of America, something about the title nagged at me. I had known a different king, somewhere...

This year (2019), DC Comics has been re-releasing Neil Gaiman's landmark The Sandman series for the 30th anniversary of the series as a whole. (The books hold up really well.) And that's where I found it - not the King of America, but the Emperor.

Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico was more than a little eccentric, but he was even more beloved. A businessman who had lost his fortune, Norton declared himself Emperor of America and moved about the streets of San Francisco in the 1800s.

The Sandman, Issue 31: Three Septembers and a January. Screenshot.

Wikipedia:

Norton had no formal political power; nevertheless, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments that he frequented. Some considered him insane or eccentric, but citizens of San Francisco celebrated his imperial presence and his proclamations…

On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont (now Grant) streets and died before he could be given medical treatment. Upwards of 10,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay him homage at his funeral. Norton has been immortalized as the basis of characters in the literature of Mark TwainRobert Louis StevensonChristopher MooreMorris and René GoscinnySelma Lagerlöf, and Neil Gaiman.

Next Time: Dogs with wings. That’s it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.