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Idioms and Phrases Index


Idioms and Phrases Index. Edited by Laurence Urdang and Frank R. Abate. Foreword by Richard W. Bailey. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Company, 1983. Vol. 1, A-G, xix + pp. 1-569; vol. 2. H-P, xv + pp. 571-1169; vol. 3, Q-Z, xv + pp. 1171-1691.

The somewhat prosaic title of this colossal work is followed by a more descriptive statement on the cover page of each of the three volumes: "An unrivaled collection of idioms, phrases, expressions, and collocutions of two or more words which are part of the English lexicon and for which the meaning of the whole is not transparent from the sum of the meanings of the constituent parts, also including nominal, verbal, and other phrases which exhibit syntactic and semantic character peculiar to the English language, the entries gathered from more than thirty sources, each described in the bibliography provided, with all items arranged aphabetically both by first word and any significant words." All in all more than 140,000 different phrases and idioms are listed as we are told by Richard W. Bailey in his short foreward (pp. vii-x) which mentions the contrast between formulas and free expressions as well as the important differentiation between figurative and literal meanings of word sequences. Nowhere, however, does Bailey mention proverbial expressions, proverbial comparisons or proverbial exaggerations, nor are they referred to explicitly in the lengthy subtitle quoted above. Yet, these large volumes are a "goldmine" for the paremiologist in his/her etymological and historical investigation of proverbial materials. It must be assumed that the editors used the word "phrase" in their titles as a catch-all term (notice also the term "expression" in the subtitle), for they have included thousands of proverbial statements in their impressive index.

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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.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

The bibliography, which is repeated at the beginning of each volume (in abbreviated form also on the front and back inside covers for quick reference), lists the 32 sources from which idioms and phrases were selected. They are cited in alphabetical order by their respective alphanumeric symbols, and for each bibliographic entry a brief description of the content and organization of the source is also included. The over thirty excerpted titles are:

BDPF Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1981 ed.)

CD Computer Dictionary (31980)

CDEI A Concise Dictionary of English Idioms (31973)

DA Dictionary of Architecture (1952)

DAI Dictionary of American Idioms (1975 ed.)

DAS Dictionary of American Slang (21975)

DAT Dictionary of Advertising Terms (1977)

DDRR Delson's Dictionary of Radio and Record Industry Terms (1980)

DEI 1 A Dictionary of English Idioms: Part I. Verbal Idioms (1954)

DEI 2 A Dictionary of English Idioms: Part II. Colloquial Phrases (1956)

DEP A Dictionary of English Phrases and Illustrative Sentences (1881, Rpt. 1971)

DIIP A Desk-Book of Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases In English Speech and Literature (1923)

DP Dictionary of Publishing (1982)

EI English Idioms, Phrases, Proverbs, Allusions and Quotations with Their Explanations for Indian Students (31922)

EPI English Prepositional Idioms (1967)

EVI Envlish Verbal Idioms (1964)

ICMM The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (101975)

ISED Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary (1965)

JT Jazz Talk (1975)

KDCEI The Kenkyusha Dictionary of Current English idioms (1964)

LDEI Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (1979)

LU Language of the Underworld (1981)

MDWPO Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1977)

MMND Mosby's Medical & Nursing Dictionary (1983)

OCM The Oxford Companion to Music (101972)

PE Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary (1980)

RHD The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966 ed.)

SPI Slang, Phrase & Idiom in Colloquial English and Their Use (1931)

WPI 1 Words and Phrases Index, vol. 1 (1969)

WPI 2 Words and Phrases Index, vol. 2 (1970)

WPI 3 Words and Phrases Index, vol. 3 (1970)

WPI 4 Words and Phrases Index, vol. 4 (1970)

Even a cursory glance at this list gives the reader the impression that a certain rationale for inclusion or exclusion is lacking - in fact, nowhere have the editors explained why these 32 sources were used and not others. For the paremiologist, nevertheless, it is of great importance that BDF, DAS, DEP, LU, PE, SPI and WPI (1-4) were included, especially since many of them also include slang expressions. Only very recently Vilmos Voigt drew attention to the importance of slang in the formation of proverbial expressions and he wondered "when and who will have the courage to make the first slang paremiological sutdy?" (Proverbium, 1, [1984], 249-250). Here then is at least a lexicographical step in the right direction.

The value of the 32 sources not withstanding, one does wonder why some of the following invaluable reference works were not included: Robert Nares, A Glossary of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions (London 1905; rpt. Detroit 1966); Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (New York 71970) or any of his numerous other dictionaries; Richard Spears, Slang and Euphemism (New York 1981); Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms (Chicago 41966); Albert Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases (New York 1922; rpt. Detroit 1970); etc., not to mention the many excellent books on Anglo-American proverbial expressions. Or do the editors intend to follow these three volumes up with another very much welcome set? But why quibble, the editors clearly could not include an unlimited number of reference works for their large index - but they do owe the reader an explanation of why they chose the ones they did over others. The annotations given for the 32 sources would basically have been similar for any other selection of sources and therefore do not provide a satisfactory answer.

 The three volumes now completed are without doubt an invaluable research tool for the study of individual idioms, phrases and proverbial expressions. What paremiologists should do is undertake a similar task for proverbs and proverbial expressions! Just for the English language this would easily result in a similarly massive reference index. A small beginning in this direction was my International Bibliography of Explanatory Essays on Individual Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions (Bern 1977) and my most recent work along these lines presents approximately 10,000 notes on proverbial matters that appeared in 228 volumes of a British journal which specializes among other things in tracing origins of phrases: Investigations of Proverbs, Proverbial Expressions, Quotations and Clichés. A Bibliography of Explanatory Essays which Appeared in "Notes and Queries" (1849-1983) (Bern 1984). Where are the computer trained paremiologists who will index proverbs and proverbial expressions from printed collections and reference works (especially from those that provide annotations) for just one language? The three volumes by Urdang and Abate are models to follow. A similar work emphasizing just paremiological matters would make historical and comparative studies in the Archer Taylor tradition much easier. We need proverbs and proverbial expressions indices, but who will take on this gargantuan task? Do remember the proverb that "Hope springs eternal!"


Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 359-364.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).   

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405


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