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The Proverb and Riddle as Folk Enthymemes

Thomas Green and William Pepicello

The Proverb and Riddle as Folk Enthymemes1

The relationship of proverbs to riddles has been expressed traditionally in terms of one basic similarity and one basic difference. Both genres generally are held to be grounded in metaphor; however, the proverb metaphor is invoked to clarify, while the riddle image is invoked to confuse. This latter difference is frequently related to a structural distinction between the two genres, namely the statement format of proverbs vs. the question format of riddles.

Alan Dundes (1975), however, suggests that proverbs and riddles share two important structural similarities. First, he points out that both genres contain descriptive elements embedded in topic-comment constructions.2 Second, both genres have two general types, oppositional and non-oppositional. In the former category are proverbs like "No news is good news" and riddles like "What has eyes and cannot see? A potato." In the latter category are proverbs like "Times is money" and riddles like "Thirty-two horses on a red hill/Now they stomp/Now they chomp/Now they stand still. Teeth." In each case, the proverb or riddle consists of a descriptive element, or topic, and a comment. In the case of riddles, the topic must be guessed, while the topic in proverbs, by virtue of contextual information, is assumed to be shared by speaker and listener.

Dundes points out (p. 51) another feature of context; it often dictates whether a given text is interpreted as a riddle or a proverb. In the specific case of proverbs, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1973) underscores the importance of context for interpretation of a given use of a proverb, and explores sources of potential ambiguity in proverbs. Among other sources of ambiguity she notes that proverbs express relative rather than absolute truth, and that the situations that provoke the usage of a proverb may be evaluated in more than one way. Michael D. Lieber (1984) focuses on the analogical aspects of proverbs, building on Seitel's (1969) demonstration that the analogic relationship between the proverb image and the real-world situation to which it is applied is ambigous according to context. Lieber extends this analysis to show that the analogic structure of proverb texts may vary even within a single context, i.e., that a given proverb uttered in a specific context may be subject to multiple interpretations depending on how the speaker and listener analyze the analogy inherent in the proverb.

Lieber also relates the ability to use a proverb persuasively to the repertoire of rhetorical strategies found in a given culture. In this paper we shall expand upon the notion of proverbs as a rhetorical form, focussing on the relation of form and function. We shall then claim that the relationship of form to function that exists in proverbs holds also for riddles, thus reinforcing Dundes' observation. This common relationship also reveals proverbs and riddles to be similar rhetorical forms with similar functions in the culture.

Lieber correctly points out that analogic reasoning in general is subject to the vagaries of ambiguity. He argues persuasively, for example, that the pair theory:scientists can be matched reasonably to the following pairs:

  1. hammer:carpenter
  2. blueprint:architect
  3. blueprint:carpenter
  4. theatrical production:critic
  5. portofolio:career
    1. (1984:427)

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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.

We begin our discussion by examining how riddles function with reference to basic pragmatic aspects of normal communication. A fundamental pragmatic principle governing utilitarian conversation has been defined by H.P. Grice (1975) as the Cooperative Principle. This principle consists of four maxims:

  1. Quantity: give the right amount of information 
  2. Quality:: try to make your contribution one that is true
  3. Relation: be relevant
  4. Manner: be perspicacious

In the riddle performance one assumes that maxims 2 and 3 are in effect by virtue of the rules of a riddle performance itself. I.e., if 2 and 3 are not in effect, a riddle cannot be potentially soluble. One also assumes that maxims 1 and 4 are flouted in the following way. The riddler presents only minimally sufficient information in the riddle to allow a respondent to discover its logic, i.e., the riddler presents his text so that it is potentially (though generally not readily) "soluble." However, the key to the logic of the riddle is presented in a covert manner, i.e., it is not perspicacious.

Consider, for example, the following riddles:

  1. What's black and white and red/read all over? Newspaper. 
  2. What fruit is on a penny? A date.

These riddles, and many more in Anglo-American culture, play on linguistic ambiguity for their wit. In 1) the ambiguity is between the simple adjective red and the irregular past participle of the verb to read. In 2) we find simple lexical ambiguity, wherein the utterance date may refer to either a fruit or a designated year stamped on a coin. In both cases, the question-answer sequence contains sufficient information for the riddler to discern the logic (i.e., wit) by which the sequence makes sense. However, this logic is not apparent and requires that the riddler detect the crucially ambiguous element (red/read and date in the examples) in order to "get" the riddle.

Following Geoffery Leech (1983:2ff.), we can summarize our analysis to this point as follows. The rules of grammar which determine form (locutionary acts) are fundamentally conventional and account for the question-and-answer form of riddles. The principles of pragmatics are fundamentally non-conventional, i.e., they are motivated in terms of conversational goals. In the case of riddle performance, the goal is to bring all participants in the interaction to an understanding of and agreement about the special logic of individual riddles. Clearly this goal is not the same as, nor an inversion of, that of questions, which is to elicit information. Thus, a pragmatic analysis of riddles indicates that they do not function as questions.

What a pragmatic analysis reveals is that riddles seem to function as enthymemes in the same way as proverbs. That is, the riddler performs an utterance which contains a non-scientific logic and a non-manifest key, the logical link which the riddlee seeks to discover. The form of the riddle is rhetorical in that the special logic is only one of several which may be applied to the riddle (since riddles function by ambiguity, either grammatical or metaphorical), and so is probabilistic. In order for the riddle act to be considered successful, riddler and riddlee must both understand and agree to the viability of this logic.

The enthymeme patterns which emerge from both proverbs and riddles reinforce the structural similarities noted by Dundes in these two genres. Moreover, such an analysis as we have proposed allows for extension in other directions. To present only one example, it explains why many riddles do not adopt a question-answer format, yet allows us to relate this type of riddle to those which do adopt the question-answer format. Simply, if riddles do not have the illocutionary force of questions, they are not constrained to be realized through interrogative syntax. Indeed, logical progressions of the type represented in riddles are as easily presented in the form of declarative statements. However, another classical form of logical argumentation is precisely that which proceeds by a series of questions and answers which seek not to illicit information so much as to construct an argument, viz. the Socratic Method.


Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 33-45.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

1 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1984 meetings of the American Folklore Society in San Diego, California.

2 See also Georges and Dundes (1963:113).


Aristotle, Rethoric. Choose your edition.

Bitzer, L.F. 1959, "Aristotle's Enthymeme Revisited." Quarterly Journal of Speech. 45:399-408.

Dundes, Alan 1975, "On the Structure of the Proverb," Proverbium 25:961-973. Reprinted in Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, eds., The Wisdom of Many: Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland, 1981.

Georges, Robert A. and Alan Dundes, 1963, "Toward a Structural Definition of the Riddle." Journal of American Folklore 76:111-118.

Goodwin, P. and J. Wenzel 1979, "Proverbs and Practical Reasoning: A Study in Socio-logic," Quarterly Journal of Speech 65: 289-302, also in Mieder and Dundes.

Grice, H.P. 1975, "Logic and Conversation," in P. Cole and J.L. Morgan eds., Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.

Jason, Heda 1971, "Proverbs in Society: The Problem of Meaning and Function," Proverbium 17:617-622

Justin, J.L. 1965, How to Do Things With Words. London: Oxford University Press.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara 1973, "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning," Proverbium 22:821-827. Also in Mieder and Dundes.

Leech, Geoffrey 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Lieber, Michael 1984, "Analogic Ambiguity: A Paradox of Proverb Usage," Journal of American Folklore 97:423-441.

Otorny, Andrew 1980, "The Role of Similarity in Similes and Metaphors," in Andrew Otorny, ed., Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 186-201.

Seitel, Peter 1969, "Proverbs: A Social Use of Metaphor," Genre 2:143-161.

Thomas Green
Department of English
Texas A&M Unversity
College Station, Texas 77843

William Pepicello
Department of English
Hahnemann University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102

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