A WOMAN AND A GUITAR: VARIATIONS ON
A FOLK METAPHOR*
Hispanic proverbs, riddles and folk
verse offer numerous examples of metaphor in which a woman
is compared--implicitly or explicitly--to a guitar or vice
versa. These are primarily (using, for convenience, the
terminology adopted by J. David Sapir)
metaphors of the "internal" genus-for-genus type, bringing
together terms from disparate semantic domains--human being
and inanimate, manmade object--and establishing a
relationship between them on the basis of certain shared
features. As is typical of such metaphors, they also,
simultaneously, produce a degree of transference, between
the terms, of other features that are not shared, or that
have not been perceived as shared. In other words--borrowing
from Sapir (p. 9) but substituting the terms with which we
are concerned here--we are, through such metaphors,
"compelled to consider what we know about [guitars]
and to select those features that would apply to
[women], thus learning something very specific about
[women]." At the same time, we are invited to think
about ways in which women and guitars are not alike
and to consider whether perhaps some of those unlike
features may, after all, be shared--whether, perhaps, women
may actually have even more in common with guitars than is
immediately apparent. In other words, we are given the
means--again, adapting Sapir's wording--of imagining that a
woman is in fact a guitar, down to the smallest
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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.
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 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…
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
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 diagram reproduced here, which is
adapted from Sapir and taken by him, in turn, from
shows this process as it applies to some of the examples I
shall be citing later on:
"D" represents the point of departure,
or what Sapir calls the "continuous term," "A" the point of
arrival or the "discontinuous term," and "I" the
intermediary or shared features. Since we are dealing here
with a reversible equation, we can put either guitar or
woman in the "D" column, and either woman or guitar in the
"A" column. Under "I" will then go the various features that
the two may be said to have in common, beginning with the
simplest--the grammatical gender of the word guitarra and other names for this or similar musical instruments--and
continuing through similarities of physical form and action.
It should be noted that a number of these shared features
are in themselves metaphors: the overall shape of a guitar
resembles that of a woman, but to speak of the "waist" and
"hips" of a guitar, or of its belly and mouth and teeth and
so on, is to employ subsidiary metaphors that could
themselves be analyzed in a diagram similar to this
one. The same is true when we refer to the sound of the guitar as
"weeping," "talking," "singing"; and, as we shall see later,
the use of certain verbs of double meaning in
Spanish--tocar, templar--adds still another
Mujer mal criada, guitarra mal
[A badly brought up woman (is like) a badly tuned
Antes templarás una guitarra
que una mujer airada.
[You will sooner tune/temper a guitar than an angry
The active role of the musician in
tuning/tempering is often emphasized:
La mujer y la guitarra, para
usarlas hay que templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar, in order to use them you have
to tune/temper them.]
La mujer y la guitarra se tiemplan
antes de usarlas.
[A woman and a guitar are tuned before using
(Argentina: field, M,
La mujer y la guitarra, para
tocarlas hay que templarlas.
[A woman and a guitar, in order to play/touch them
you have to tune/temper them.]
(Spain: field, F,
La mujer y la guitarra, es
[A woman and a guitar are difficult to
(Spain: Rodríguez 12.600 168)
La mujer y la guitarra, hay que
[A woman and a guitar, you have to know how to
(Spain: Rodríguez 6.666 92.)
Mujeres y guitarras, es menester
mucho tino para templarlas.
[Women and guitars, you have to have a knack for
tuning/ tempering them.]
(Spain: Rodríguez 10.700 203)
It is worth noting the frequency with
which these proverbs are stated in the form: "A woman and a
guitar..." rather than "A woman is like a guitar," so that
hypothetically at least the topic could be either the woman
or the guitar; that is, a musician, observing how easily his
instrument gets out of tune, could remark: "La mujer y la
guitarra, siempre destempladas" [A woman and a guitar,
always out of tune], and be simultaneously commenting on
his musical instrument and on women in general.
As a final category of woman/guitar
proverbs, we have those in which the two terms are linked to
others with which they are considered to share certain
Mujer, guitarra y molino,
requieren uso contino.
[A woman, a guitar, and a mill require constant
(Spain: Jara 303; Ecuador:
A quien tiene escopeta, guitarra,
reloj o mujer, nunca le falta un traste que componer.
[He who has a shotgun, a guitar, a watch or a woman
will never lack for something to fix.]
Traste, incidentally, which I
have translated merely as "something," has the basic meaning
of "fret," as on a guitar, but is widely used in place of trasto, meaning a piece of furniture, a utensil, or
simply a piece of junk. And finally, in a last
Mujer, escopeta, guitarra y
caballo, no prestallo.
[A woman, a shotgun, a guitar, and a horse are not to
(Spain: Rodríguez 12.600 213)
Here, the guitar has simply been added
to the more frequent list of three "objects" that one is
warned against lending: Mujer, caballo y escopeta, no se
presta or Mujer, reloj [watch] y escopeta, no
se presta (Spain: Sbarbi 667). In another variant,
however, it replaces one of the original group, thus
maintaining the original number of three:
No prestar nunca el caballo,
la guitarra y la mujer
[Never lend your horse, your guitar, or your
*Previously published in Proverbium, 10 (1993), pp. 21-36
J. David Sapir, "The
Anatomy of Metaphor," Ch. 1 of The Social Use of
Metaphor, eds. J. David Sapir and J. Christopher
Crocker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
1977), pp. 3-32. Sapir draws in turn on sources ranging
from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke, Max Black, and I. A.
Richards, among others.
Sapir, p. 6. His
reference is to J. Dubois, et al., Rhétorique
générale (Paris: Larousse, 1970), 108,
118. In the English translation by Paul B. Burrell and
Edgar M. Slotkin, A General Rhetoric (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981) the corresponding
pages are 108 and 121.
Such metaphors are by no
means limited to folk tradition; see, for example, a
technical description of the tiple and the cuatro--types of guitar popular in Colombia--in
terms of the dimensions of the "head," "chest," "waist,"
and "hips" (Guillermo Abadía Morales, Compendio
general de folklore colombiano, 4th ed.
[Bogotá, 1983], pp. 269 and 273).
Sources of quoted
examples are identified by author's surname, date, and
item number or page. See the bibliography at the end of
this study for full details. For examples collected in
the field I have indicated region, sex of informant, and
approximate age if known. All English translations are my
Variants also exist in
which the name of the instrument is masculine, e.g., tiple (a type of guitar especially popular in
Colombia), violão (the common term used in
Brazil for the "Spanish" guitar).
The strophe is one of 38 cuartetas making up the poem "Pórtico,"
written originally for a book published in 1892 by
Salvador Rueda (see Darío's Poesías
completas, ed. Alfonso Méndez Plancarte
[Madrid: Aguilar, 1961], p. 654). Within the
poem, the strophe appears in parentheses as a kind of
aside on the part of the poet, an isolated image brought
to mind by the mention of a guitar in the previous cuarteta; its consequent "detachability" from the
rest of the poem, and its use of traditional guitar/woman
imagery, might foster its adoption as a "folk" verse
despite its non-traditional, 11-syllable form. In the
original, the first word of the strophe is urna [urn] rather than the indefinite article una. Assuming it is not merely a typographical
error, the variation recorded by Saubidet may be
considered evidence of the entry of the cuarteta into oral tradition, where a relatively unfamiliar image
(the guitar as "amorous urn") has been replaced by a more
familiar one (the guitar as "amorous woman").
One of the
classificatory categories proposed by Roberto
Lehmann-Nitsche in his classic study Adivinanzas
rioplatenses (Buenos Aires: Coni Hermanos, 1911) and
later adopted by Archer Taylor in his English Riddles
from Oral Tradition (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1951) as well as by other scholars in
The italics are in the
original. Escachalandrado or descachalandrado is a regionalism with the meaning
of desaliñado, descuidado ("slovenly," "unkempt") (María Josefina Tejera,
ed., Diccionario de venezolanismos [Caracas:
Academia Venezolana de la Lengua, 1983], pp. 374,
418). The use of an adjective typically applied to a
person rather than an object contributes to the
Española, Diccionario de la lengua
española, 19th ed. (Madrid, 1970), under guitarra. The expression may be applied to
individuals of either sex. Under the verb templar the same source notes that in South America (region or
regions unspecified) the reflexive verb templarse has the meaning enamorarse, "to fall in
Aguilar Paz, Jesús. El
refranero hondureño. Tegucigalpa: Editorial
Anda Hermoso, Patricia de. Dichos y
refranes. Mexico, D.F.: Gómez-Gómez Hnos.,
Bravo, Campo Elías, comp. Folklore y educación popular.
[Quito?]: Bravo, n.d. [1975?].
Campa, Arthur L. Sayings and
Riddles in New Mexico. University of New Mexico
Bulletin, Language Ser., Vol. 6, no. 2. Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico, 1937.