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Responding to Wolfgang Mieder's call for help in locating international variants of the proverbial expression "To carry owls to Athens" in Proverbium, 1 (1984), 183-185, I transcribed all the texts of this type from the great Romanian collection by I. A. Zanne, Proverbele românilor, I-X, 1895-1903. All entries are transcribed exactly, giving for each of them a literal English translation with some short explanations where necssary.

Some considerations about this collection are necessary in order to understand the quotations better. I. A. Zanne was not a philologist, but a cartographer. As a cadastral suveryor he took the opportunity throughout the country to collect many proverbs directly from use. But in spite of the rich data (26,479 entries), the ordering of the material in the collection is deficient. Many proverbs are repeated, the variant-grouping is sometimes arbitrary, and the meaning is not well explained for all the proverbs.

Abbreviations used in the following texts are as follows: Z=Zanne's collection; I, II etc. = volume; 1,2, ... (Arabic figures) = the order-number in the collection; () = page number in the respective volume.

I.  Z,I, 400 (107)

A cãra apã la put.

Carã si el apã la put.
P. Ispirescu, Rev. Ist., I, 460

Nu cãra apã la fîntînã.
Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, II, p. 262.

A duce unde prisoseste deja ceea ce ducem si nu poate fi de nici un folos; a se apuca de o muncã zadarnicã. Intr-un mod figurat aceastã zicãtoare însemneazã: a da sfaturi acelora care ar fi mai bine în stare de a ne povãtui. Latinii ziceau: In sylvam ligna ferre

400 To carry water to the fountain/ put is an old word for fountain, from lat. puteus, cf. fr. puits/

He carries water to the fountain.
P. I. etc.

Don't carry water to the fountain.
R-D etc. 

That is to say to carry something in a place where it is already superfluous and can't be useful; to take up a useless work. Figuratively, this saying means: to advise someone who is rather able to give advice. The Latins said: ...


II. Z, I, 401 (108)

A cãra apã la rîu.

Acelasi înteles ca la no. 400.

Latinul zicea: Mari aquam addere si francezul: porter de l'eau à la rivière.

401 To carry water to the river.

The same meaning as no. 400

The Latin said: ...and the French:...

III. Z, I, 944 (234)

A cãra lemne în pãdure.
P. Ispirescu, Rev. Ist., I, p. 460 - Fr. Damé, I, p. 196.

A duce lemne în pãdure.
Laurian & Maxim, II, p. 566.

Vezi Apã, Vie.

A da celui care deja este bogat; a duce un lucru acolo unde nu e de lipsã. 

Intr-un mod figurat aceastã zicãtoare însemneazã: a da poveti acelora care ar fi ei în stare sã ne povãtuiascã. Romanii ziceau: In silvam ferre ligna si Croesi pecuniae nummum addere.

944 To carry wood in the forest.
P. I. etc. 

To carry wood in the forest/ a duce - a cãra are synonymous/
L & M etc.

See Water, Vineyard 

To give something to someone who is already rich; to carry something in a place where there is no lack.

Figuratively this saying means: to advise someone who is rather able to give advice. The Romans said: ... and ...

IV. Z, I, 1236 (304)

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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.


VI. Z, V, 11984 (313)

A vinde castraveti la grãdinar.
D-na E. B. Mawr, p. 44

[a] A vinde grãdinarului castraveti.
G. I. Munteanu, p. 72 - I. Ionescu, Cart. Cit., III, 224

[b] Grãdinarului nu-i vinzi castraveti.
V. A. Forascu, C. Falticeni, J. Suceava

[c] Ti-ai gãsit sã vinzi castraveti la grãdinar.
E. I. Patriciu înv. c. Smulti, j. Covurlui

[d] Vinde castraveti la grãdinar si lui îi e inima acrã.
Gr. Alexandrescu, magistr., j. Putna

[e] Umblã la grãdinar castraveti sã vînzã
Si lui, de dînsii, îi este acrã (a sa) rînza
Pann, I, p. 29 - Hintescu, p. 39

[f] Vinzi praji grãdinarului.
Pericl. Papahagi, Zweit. Jahres., p. 179.

Acelasi înteles ca la no. 11980.

Delphinum natare doces.
Prov. Lat.

On ne doit pas enseigner le chat à soriser.
Prov. Franc.

Insegnare a' gatti rampicare.
Prov. Ital. 

Filho de peisce não aprende a nadar.
Prov. Portug.

A perro viejo no hay tustus.
Prov. Span.

Er will den Fischen das Schwimmen lehren.
Prov. Germ.

An old fox needs learn no craft.
Prov. Engl.

 11984 To sell cucumbers to the gardener.

[a] To sell cucumbers to the gardener/ la grãdinar and grãdinarului are synonymous forms in Romanian/.

[b] Don't sell the cucumbers to the gardener.

[c] That's fine, to sell the cucumbers to the gardener!/ The Romanian phrase ti-ai gãsit sã... means 'that's fine', 'what an idea' and marks the scorn for an useless act/.

[d] He sells cucumbers to the gardener and his heart (gardener's heart) is grieved./ Because the Romanians use especially pickled cucumbers the correlation cucumber - sourness - grieve is usual/.

[e] He looks for selling cucumbers to the gardener. And from this (the gardener) has a sourness in his belly./ Two verses from the well-known Romanian poet Anton Pann, who made one of the first collections of proverbs, putting many of them in verses/.

[f] He sells the leek to the gardener./ This is a Macedo-Romanian proverb/.

The same meaning as no. 11980.

VII. Z, V, 11985 (314)

Grãdinarul nu cumpãrã flori.
Baronzi, p. 49

A vinde flori grãdinarului.
Baronzi, p. 47 & 69

Acelasi înteles ca la no 11984. 

Porter de l'eau à la rivière.
Prov. Franc.

 11985 The gardener doesn't buy flowers

To sell flowers to the gardener.

The same meaning as no. 11984.

VIII. Z, V, 11986 (315)

La grãdinari castraveti sa nu vinzi.
Pann, Edit. 1889, p. 154 - Hintescu, p. 70 - Ion Valcof, stud. J. Dolj.

[a] Nu vinde castraveti la grãdinar.
Teodorescu, înv. c. Lipova, j. Vaslui

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.

Nu vinde flori la grãdinar.
Baronzi, p. 38.

Acelasi înteles ca la no, 11987.

11988 Don't sell flowers to the gardener.

The same meanings as no. 11987.

XI. Z, VI, 13397 (105)

Carã apã-n Dunãre.

Vezi Apã

Duce unde e de prisos, face o muncã zadarnicã. A se vedea no. 400 and 401.

Mari aquam addere.
Prov. Lat.

13397 To carry water into the Danube.

 See Water.

To carry something where it is plenty, to work uselessly. See no. 400 and 401.


Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 243-252.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

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