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Introduction to De Proverbio


Introduction to De Proverbio

The publication in 1965 of Proverbium: Bulletin d'Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques by the Society for Finnish Literature in Helsinki gave par(o)emiology enormous impetus. Scholars working in isolation and scattered around the world found a platform wherein to express themselves; research programs were channelled towards a more coherent goal, and many young researchers took up paremiology enthusiastically. But, as often happens, all good things come to an end, and Proverbium ceased publication in 1975 for financial reasons. A few years later, a new Proverbium was born, this time in the New World of the United States of America, where in 1984 a proverb scholar of German origin, Professor Wolfgang Mieder of the University of Vermont, edited the first issue. Since then paremiologists from the four corners of the world have had a highly scholarly journal in which to publish their findings, and a generous-spirited scholar of world-wide renown to look up to.

Things change however, and technology, as we experience it every day, has changed our lives dramatically in the last few years. As paremiology becomes more and more a field of research interrelated with other disciplines like psychology, sociology, folklore, literature and mass-media, there is a need to explore new outlets which are offered by today's technology. De Proverbio (Latin: About the Proverb) intends to do that, but in the process it does not aim to replace existing publications on the subject; on the contrary, it will support them, and will in turn seek their support. The Editorial Board and the editor feel that De Proverbio will be able both to reach a wider audience, and hence to propose paremiology as a field of study to more researchers than traditional journals have thus far been able to do, and also to attract a readership which perhaps is not familiar with the term paremiology. Fast communication and easy access provided by computer technology will allow De Proverbio to focus attention on the proverbs and, metaphorically speaking, to re-present them to those who use them on a daily basis. Because, although De Proverbio is a refereed scholarly journal, we know that there are many people out there interested in proverbs for their own sake. In order to acquaint them with what is going on in proverb studies today, a novel structure has been devised for this journal, a structure which allows De Proverbio to reprint in THE MASTERS section all the important work of present and past scholars who have contributed to the advancement of paremiology.

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Proverbs, Sayings and Popular Wisdom - Audio Proverbs in English and Romance Languages, Proverb Studies, Proverb Collections, International Proverb Bibliographies


De Proverbio – Latin for ‘About the Proverb’ – is a website devoted to proverbs in several languages. It was founded in January 1995 at the University of Tasmania, Australia. De Proverbio was the world’s first refereed electronic journal of international proverb studies. It’s inspiration was Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship edited by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder at the University of Vermont. The Yearbook continued the tradition of Proverbium: Bulletin d’Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques, published occasionally from 1965 to 1975 by the Society for Finnish Literature, Helsinki.

Recently, the website has added audio proverbs in six languages, read by native speakers.  Also available for the lovers of languages and their proverbial richess is a page of multilingual proverb crosswords.

Proverbs and Their Definition

From time immemorial proverbs have fascinated people of all ages and from all walks of life. As it happened throughout centuries, common people today still avail themselves of the proverb’s rich oral tradition to convey their culture and values, while scholars collect and study them from a wide range of angles: linguistic, social, psychological, political, historical and so on.

Proverbs by James Chapman - cat
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice

The problem of proverb definition is still open. However, it is broadly accepted that proverbs were born from man’s experience. And that they generally express, in a very succinct way, common-sense truths. They give sound advice and reflect the human condition. But, as we know, human nature is both good and bad and the latter is often mirrored by discriminatory proverbs, be they against women, different nationalities or particular social groups. For a thorough discussion of proverb definition, see Popular Views of the Proverb by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder. Another article which sheds some light on the proverb definition is The Wisdom of Many and the Wit of One by Archer Taylor.

Proverbs and Their Origin

As to the origin of proverbs we tend to assume that they were born in times when human society began to self-impose rules and embrace principles necessary for communal living. Research can trace them back only to the time when language was recorded by means of some type of writing. The Sumerian civilisation of more than five thousand years ago is the oldest known civilisation to have made use of proverbs, some of which have been passed on through its cuneiform inscriptions.

One such proverb, in its Latin version, is Canis festinans caecos parit catulos. It spread to other languages. The English translation is The hasty bitch brings forth blind whelps. In French, it became La chienne dans sa hâte a mis bas des chiots aveugles. In the Italian La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi, the bitch has been replaced by the cat. The Portuguese version is Cadelas apressadas parem cães tortos, and the Romanian, Căţeaua de pripă îşi naşte căţeii fără ochi.

Proverbs and Their Use

Apart from use on a wide scale in day-to-day speech, there is ample evidence that proverbs were essential tools in teaching and learning. The pedagogical use of proverbs was encountered first in Sumerian society and subsequently this use became widespread throughout Medieval Europe.

Proverbs by James Chapman - book
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket

Proverbs and proverbial expressions are found in religious manuscripts of the first half of the eighth century. The aim of introducing proverbs into religious texts was to help novices to learn Latin, and this practice became widespread by the tenth century.

The use of proverbs in teaching and learning was not circumscribed to England. Relatively new research attests to the use of proverbs in teaching in the eleventh century in Liège, France. In Italy the famous medical School of Salerno of the eleventh century formulated medical precepts which later became proverbs adopted by different cultures. Post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis was translated After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile in English. In French became Après dîner repose un peu, après souper promène une mille, while in Italian Dopo pranzo riposar un poco, dopo cena passeggiar un miglio. The Spanish version is Después de yantar reposad un poco, después de cenar pasead una milla and the Portuguese Depois de jantar, dormir; depois de cear, passos mil.

Proverbs and Their Abuse

But from use comes abuse, as a Spanish proverb says.  There is no doubt that the capacity of the proverb to convey universal truths concisely led to their abuse and manipulation.

Hitler and his Nazi regime employed proverbs as emotional slogans for propaganda purposes and encouraged the publication of anti-semitic proverb collections. For a thorough analysis of this phenomenon, please read the fascinating article “ … as if I were the master of situation.” Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist regimes of the past have not only manipulated proverbs, but also purged popular collections of features which did not reflect their political ends. The former Soviet regime is at the forefront of such actions. One type of manipulation described by Jean Breuillard in Proverbes et pouvoir politique: Le cas de l’U.R.S.S.  (published in “Richesse du proverbe”, Eds. François Suard and Claude Buridant. Lille: Université de Lille, 1984. II, 155-166). It consisted in modifying ancient proverbs like La vérité parcourt le monde (Truth spreads all over the world) into La vérité de Lénine parcourt le monde (Lenin’s truth spreads all over the world). As a result the new creation is unequivocably charged with a specific ideological message.

Manipulation did not stop at individual proverbs, it extended to entire collections. Vladimir Dal’s mid-nineteen century collection of Russian proverbs is such an example. Its first Soviet edition (1957) reduces the proverbs containing the word God from 283 to 7 only. Instead, those which express compassion for human weaknesses, such as alcoholism, disappear altogether. In more recent years, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Proverbele românilor (published in 1877 by I. C. Hinţescu) suffered the same treatment. More than 150 proverbs were eliminated or changed in order to respond rigidly to the communist ideology.

Proverbs Across Time and Space

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs states that foreign proverbs’ contribution to the English proverbial stock has enriched our language. Many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and have a rightful place in an English dictionary. Indeed, a close scrutiny of that dictionary reveals that more than two hundred and fifty proverbs are listed as first existing in Italian.

This is also true for other modern languages, particularly French and Spanish. The translation is not always literal. At times it is adapted to the new language and the resulting proverb is often enriched in its expression. For instance the Latin Homo sine pecunia est imago mortis (A man without money is the image of death) is rather closely translated in Italian as Uomo senza quattrini è un morto che cammina (A man without money is a dead man walking).

However, in other languages the metaphor changes, but not the meaning. In English the proverb becomes A man without money is a bow without an arrow, while in French Un homme sans argent / Est un loup sans dents (A man without money is a wolf without teeth) and an element of rhyme is introduced. The Romanian adaptation is a real poetic gem Omul fără bani e ca pasărea fără aripi; Când dă să zboare / Cade jos şi moare (A man without money is like a bird without wings; When he tries to fly / He falls down and dies). The concept is essentially the same: the man without money lacks something important…

Proverbs Today

Proverbs by James Chapman - egg and hen
The egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen

While proverbs are still used today in a traditional way, that is in speech, literature and teaching, they have found a new ever expanding use in the advertising industry and in the mass media. One example is Here today, gone tomorrow, which became Hair today, gone tomorrow in the hair-removal industry. In the mass media it has a variety of paraphrases such as Hear today, gone tomorrow or Heir today, gone tomorrow. Before the Barcelona Olympic Games the old proverb All roads lead to Rome became All roads lead to… Barcelona in many English language newspapers and magazines. A new phenomenon encountered in many languages nowadays and is undoubtedly a sign of the proverb’s resilience and vitality.

Important writers of the past, among them Goethe and Voltaire, have questioned the traditional wisdom of proverbs. That led to some proverb transformations. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder coined the term anti-proverb for all forms of creative proverb changes. They can be deliberate innovations, alterations, variations, parodies. Anti-proverbs are widely spread today, some living a short time, some even making their way into recent proverb collections. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows the corners and Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else are considered anti-proverbs.

Proverbs and Their Collection

Apart from studies on individual and multilingual proverbs and proverbial expressions, you will find a few e-books on our website. I will mention a Brazilian collection and a dictionary of equivalent English and Romanian proverbs. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder’s yearly bibliographies are an invaluable tool for students and researchers. Given their widespread use over the millennia, it is no wonder that scholars of the past started assembling proverbs in collections. Aristotle is believed to be among the first paremiographers (collectors of proverbs), but, unfortunately, his collection was lost. In more recent times a great impetus to the collection of proverbs was given by Erasmus. His fame spread from Venice throughout Europe after the publication in 1508 of his Adagiorum Chiliades. This collection contained 3,260 proverbs drawn from classical authors.

The success of the book led to several augmented editions culminating with that of 1536, which contains 4,151 proverbs. Erasmus’ work was translated into several European languages. While it became the model for future proverb collections in those languages, they were widely copied and translated.

One good example of such a practice is the 1591 Italian collection Giardino di Ricreatione, nel quale crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi, sotto nome di sei miglia proverbii, e piacevoli riboboli Italiani, colti e scelti da Giovanni Florio. And two decades later appeared in French as Le Jardin de Récréation, au quel croissent rameaux, fleurs et fruits très-beaux, gentils et souefs, soubz le nom de Six mille proverbes et plaisantes rencontres françoises, recueillis et triéez par GOMÈS DE TRIER, non seulement utiles mais délectables pour tous espritz désireux de la très-noble et copieuse langue françoise, nouvellement mis en lumière, à Amsterdam, par PAUL DE RAVESTEYN.

Proverbs and Fun

Proverbs by James Chapman - duck
If the world flooded, it wouldn’t matter to the duck

On the less academic side, you can test your knowledge of languages by solving our bilingual or multilingual crosswords. Or, you can listen to our featured proverbs in 6 languages – English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Also, enjoy sharing them with your friends. Some were posted on Twitter as comments to political events of the day.

Painters in Renaissance time, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel, with his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, were attracted by the subject.

Modern artists like James Chapman illustrated recently proverbs from other world languages with hilarious cartoons. See some of his images on this page.

As editor, I feel very privileged to be able to devote THE MASTERS section of this historic first issue to the writings of Professor Wolfgang Mieder, who has published more than 60 (SIXTY!) books on the subject, and is, in the words of Alan Dundes, "the world leading authority on the proverb" and "... it is clear that one day when the comprehensive history of paremiology is written, there will have to be at least one full chapter devoted to the extraordinary productivity and to the many exceptional achievements of this remarkable scholar."

Another important section of the journal, titled CURRENT RESEARCH, is designed to be a platform for the most recent scholarly findings of paremiologists around the world. All articles published here will be peer-reviewed. In this first issue I am very happy to offer such seminal articles as The Perception of Proverbiality by Shirley L. Arora, Foundations of Semiotic Proverb Study by Peter Grzybek and Semantic Potential of Comparative Paremiology by Ariella Flonta.

But De Proverbio is not only a scholarly journal: it becomes an electronic book publisher as well. With its associated section De Proverbio Database, it aims at publishing studies and collections of proverbs in some of the main languages of the world. This will provide a wealth of sources, all stored in one place, for the benefit of both general and comparative paremiologists. De Proverbio thus hopes to encourage paremiologists and paremiographers everywhere to start editing, in a scholarly fashion, all the important collections and writings on proverbs in their own language, and to propose them for publication. For the time being, texts in the following languages will be accepted: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. In the future, when technology permits, or when we become more acquainted with its full capabilities, Russian and other languages will be added to this initial list. Perhaps it sounds ambitious, but we can do it!

With this first issue we have published in the Database the invaluable International Bibliographies which Professor Mieder compiles every year, and which he so generously puts at the disposal of paremiologists and the general public. In addition, we have published two books, both prepared by the editor. One is Lettera in proverbi written by an Italian humanist in the sixteenth century, and the other is the second edition of a bilingual English-Romanian Dictionary of Equivalent Proverbs, first published in 1992, and now out of print.

While De Proverbio the journal is scheduled to have two issues a year (around February-March and September-October), for De Proverbio the book publisher, I envisage an ongoing activity; in other words, when a volume is ready for publication it will be published without having to wait for the next issue of the journal.

An enterprise of this kind cannot ever be the result of the efforts of just one person. I would like to thank all those people at the University of Tasmania who have helped me enormously in unravelling the secrets of the HTML: Anne Hugo from the University Library who gave me the first lessons, and continued to help until publication; Linda Forbes, also from the University Library, who provided me with the list of Latin special characters and with some theoretical background for the HTML, and Doone Jones from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, who installed both Netscape and Mosaic on my computer. Without the help of Justin Ridge of Information Technology Services, who provided detailed and constant assistance with BBedit and HTML, and who is virtually the technical editor of this first issue, the publication of the journal would have been much delayed. To Steve Bittinger, Manager of User Services, ITS, University of Tasmania, whom I approached first when thinking of entering this venture, and who not only ensured I had all the help I needed from start to finish, but who also planted the idea of the proverb Database in my mind as early as 1992, I owe my heartfelt thanks.

My appreciation goes also to that supportive and enthusiastic group of friends, who are all former students of mine, for their help in proofreading all the material published in this first issue. Their names are duly listed under Editorial Assistants.

Last, but not least, I am most grateful to all members of the Editorial Board who have responded to this initiative right from the beginning with proverbial enthusiasm. In these last three months we have not only discovered together the enormous advantage that computer technology offers, but we have also become good friends without ever having met! As we live, in most cases, at "tyrannical" distances from one another, I consider this in itself a wonderful achievement.


 Teodor Flonta
Department of English and European Languages and Literatures (Italian)
University of Tasmania

© Teodor Flonta

March 1995


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The banner illustration is a fragment of Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Netherlandish Proverbs", 1559