General Overview of Proverbs:
to Brunvand, the proverb is a "popular saying in a relatively fixed form which
is, or has been, in oral circulation. Many attempts have been made to define
proverbs more precisely than this, usually in terms their origin ("the wisdom
of many, the wit of one"), their nature (sayings that "sum up a situation...characterize
its essence"), or their function ("...to provide an argument for a course of
action which conforms to community values")...." I find this last point--the
proverb as an argument that appeals to traditional values or solutions--most
interesting. If it is true, it certainly would support the hypothesis that one
might learn much about a culture/people by collecting and examining its popular
proverbs. In an attempt to show how prevalent and varied the use of proverbs
are, I've included the following examples.
A few examples of Proverbs From Popular Literature:
Two Years Before the Mast Richard Henry Dana
On board the Pilgrim, everything went on regularly, each one trying to
get along as smoothly as possible; but the comfort of the voyage was evidently
at an end. "That is a long lane which has no turning"--"every dog must
have his day, and mine will come by-and by"--and the like proverbs, were
occasionally quoted; but no one spoke of any probable end to the voyage,
or of Boston, or anything of the kind;
Way of All Flesh Samuel Butler
Ernest was annoyed and surprised, for had not his father and mother been
wanting him to be more religious all his life? Now that he had become so
they were still not satisfied. He said to himself that a prophet was not
without honour save in his own country, but he had been lately-or rather
until lately-getting into an odious habit of turning proverbs upside down,
and it occurred to him that a country is sometimes not without honour save
for its own prophet. The he laughed, and for the rest of the day felt more
as he used to feel before he had heard Mr. Hawke's sermon.
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
"What art thou driving at, Sancho? curses on thee!" said Don Quixote; "for
when thou takest to stringing proverbs and sayings together, no one can
understand thee but Judas himself, and I wish he had thee.
Bible (King James Version) (Christian)
John:16:29 His disciples said unto him, Lo, now speakest thou plainly,
and speakest no proverb.
Bible (King James Version) (Christian)
Proverbs:16:19 Better [it is to be] of a humble spirit with the lowly,
than to divide the spoil with the proud.
Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare
BASSANIO: I know thee well; thou hast obtain'd thy suit. Shylock thy master
spoke with me this day, And hath preferr'd thee, if it be preferment to
leave a rich Jew's service to become the follower of so poor a gentleman.
LAUNCELOT: The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock
and you, sir: you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough.
Journey to the Center of the Earth Jules Verne
The whole floor, composed of sand and malachite, was strewn with bones,
freshly gnawed bones of reptiles and fish, with a mixture of mammalia.
My very soul grew sick as my body shuddered with horror. I had truly, according
to the old proverb, fallen out of the frying pan into the fire. Some beast
larger and more ferocious even than the shark-crocodile inhabited this
Often only funny after the fact, the occurrence of "dueling proverbs" during
a heated argument is amusing. Note the apparent contradiction of the following
proverbs. In reality, like any phrase in English, the exact meaning
of the proverb is dependent on the specific circumstances of its use--people,
place, context.. A good example of this problem occurs with the proverb
that "A rolling stone gathers no moss." In America the proverb is generally
used to suggest that one should keep moving/doing if he/she wishes to avoid
stagnation. Ironically, I have read that in Scotland the proverb is used
to show displeasure at a person who is too active; in England, it is often
used as a positive comment about those who stay home. In both of these
examples moss is seen as a worthy attribute, perhaps representing roots/tradition/comfort/friends.
Anyway, note the following "dueling proverbs":
You're never too old to learn. (You can't teach an old dog new tricks.)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. (Out of sight out of mind.)
The pen is mightier than the sword. (Actions speak louder than words.)
Silence is golden. (The squeaky wheel gets the grease.)
Clothes makes the man. (Never judge a book by its cover.)
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. (Don't beat a dead horse.)
He who hesitates is lost. (Look before you leap)
Evolution of a few Proverbs and anti-proverbs:
According to Wolfgang Mieder, quite the expert on paremiology (the study
of proverbs), proverbs can evolve over time, and they do not always keep
the original meaning. For example, the popular proverb that makes use of
the phrase "Different strokes..." goes back quite a ways:
Perhaps even more interesting is the anti-proverb phenomena. This occurs
quite often, and I often find anti-proverbs on buttons or bumper stickers.
Here are a couple:
1732 English Proverb: Different sores must have different salves.
1950 Southern Blacks: Different strokes for different folks.
1970 Volkswagen ads: Different volks for different folks.
Proverb: A woman's place is in the home.
Anti-Proverb: A woman's place is in the House...and the Senate.
Proverb: A man's home is his castle.
Anti-proverb: A man's home is his castle; let him clean it.
There are "many ways to skin a cat" or say the same thing with proverbs.
For example, look at the following five ways to say "get busy.":
An idle man is the devil's playfellow.
The early bird gets the worm.
Hard work never hurt anybody.
The sleepy fox catches no chickens.
He that rises late must trot all day.
If we look carefully at proverbs we soon notice that
quite a few have a particular structure--a formula. Note the common structure
Proverbs of Derision
One X is worth a lot of Y
One picture is worth a thousand words.
One good head is better than a hundred strong hands.
One friend is better than a thousand silver pieces.
Where there's X there's Y
Where there's smoke there's fire.
Where there's a will there's a way.
Not all proverbs are kind, and more than a few are used to attack or
demean a specific group. For example:
A Few Proverbs I like
Beggars breed and rich men feed. (first use about 1639)
Put a miller, a tailor and a weaver in one bag and shake them. The first
one that comes out will be a thief. (1659)
A man may as well open an oyster without a knife as a lawyer's mouth without
a fee. (1597)
Beware the forepart of a woman, the hind part of mule, and all sides
of a priest. (1591)
Physicians' faults are covered with earth. (1620)
The only good Indian is a dead Indian (probably 1869--see
article on this proverb)
Although I recognize the inherent problems with proverbs
(simplicity, not applicable to all situations, can limit responses...), I still
like the wit and wisdom of proverbs like the following:
- An old dog barks not in vain
- Frugality is an income
- A little stone may overturn a great wagon
- There is no fence against ill fortune
- A broken leg is not healed by a silk stocking
- A carpenter is know by his chips
- In a calm sea every man is a pilot
- Empty vessels make the most sound
- Half the truth is often a whole lie
These comparative expressions can be quite funny
or terrible--often it depends on whether you are giving or getting the
comparison. If you know one you think belongs on the list, post it on the
He not the sharpest knife in the drawer
She has a room temperature IQ
During evolution his ancestors were in the control
She is so dense that light bends around her
If you stand close enough to him, you can hear the
Some drink from the fountain of knowledge, but he