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In an article entitled "On Whether Weather 'Proverbs' Are Proverbs," originally published in Proverbium (1 [1984], 39-46), Alan Dundes takes the position that sayings concerning weather are not proverbs but superstitions--rhymed or otherwise--and have no legitimate place in proverb collections.[1]

Dundes' article has been recently reprinted in his volume entitled Folklore Matters (Knoxville: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), pp. 92-97. For all citations, page references are supplied for both the original article and the reprint, e.g., "p. 39/92." He maintains that:

What has tended to confuse folklorists is that whereas superstitions are more often than not free phrase, weather superstitions frequently occur in rhymed fixed-phrase form. In other words, they are superstitions with the textural features of proverbs (and riddles). (p. 40/93)

Dundes goes on to suggest (p. 42/94) that certain texts "can serve as either superstitions or proverbs," giving as examples the English "Lightning never strikes twice in the same place" and "One swallow does not make a summer" (p. 43-4/94-5); but he insists that "weather sayings to the extent that they are literal fall under the generic rubric of superstition." He then concludes:

With similar reasoning, I would argue that most of what proverb scholars have referred to as 'medical proverbs'. . . are simply rhymed folk medical superstitions. . . .Finally, I do not really believe that the folk consider weather and medical rules as proverbs. It is rather the folklorists who have wrongly constructed such erroneous classificatory categories. To the original question raised: Are weather proverbs proverbs? I would say emphatically "No!" (p. 45/96)

Throughout most of the article--in fact, up until the final paragraph just quoted--Dundes is clearly concerned with proverbs as an analytical category rather than ethnographic or ethnic genre.[2] It is in his assertion that he does "not really believe that the folk consider weather and medical rules as proverbs," that the focus of his study shifts--if only momentarily and almost as an afterthought--to the proverb as a cultural or ethnic concept. There is no indication of the basis for the statement, unless one assumes that he attributes to the folk the same reasoning that underlies his own conclusions regarding the genre to which weather sayings belong. Neither is it clear whether the remark refers specifically to English-speaking "folk," or is intended to apply cross-culturally. It caught my attention, however, because it contrasted markedly with my own longstanding impression with regard to Spanish-speaking informants, who seemed clearly to make no generic distinction between proverbs--refranes --that deal with weather or with matters of health and those that deal with other topics. By coincidence, I had had occasion, shortly before reading Dundes' article, to confirm this overall impression in rather dramatic fashion.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

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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.

It is also well to keep in mind that the respondents in this survey were a "folk group" only in the broadest sense, that of a shared native language. It would be interesting to find out whether the results of a survey such as this one would be markedly different among, for example, members of a small farming community, comparable to the one in which my Spanish informants resided, where one would expect to find a significant body of shared traditions and where weather sayings, in particular, might play a greater role. In the meantime, however, I believe that the question posed in the title of Dundes' study clearly merits further consideration. At least with regard to the "folk," the case for a negative answer has yet to be made.



*Previously published as "Weather Proverbs: Some 'Folk' Views" in Proverbium, 8 (1991), pp. 1-17

  1. A partial version of this study was presented at the annual meeting of the California Folklore Society, held at the University of California, Los Angeles, in April, 1987.

  2. See Dan Ben-Amos, "Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres," in Folklore Genres, ed. Dan Ben-Amos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976), pp. 215-242. For a useful survey of various approaches to a supercultural definition of the proverb, see Neal Norrick, How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English Proverbs (Berlin and New York: Mouton, 1985), pp. 31-79.

  3. Reported in "The Perception of Proverbiality," Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, 1 (1984), pp. 14-15 and note 20.

  4. The Proverb and an Index to The Proverb (Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1962), p. 111.

  5. How Proverbs Mean, p. 110.

  6. Wolfgang Mieder, "Popular Views of the Proverb," Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, 2 (1985), 109-143. The definitions are listed on pp. 111-116.

  7. Harry M. Hyatt, Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois (New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935). This first edition has the convenience of an index, which is lacking in the revised, enlarged edition of 1965. The numbering of items, and often the wording, is completely changed in the second edition.

  8. Dundes, p. 40/93; Roger D. Abrahams, "A Rhetoric of Everyday Life: Traditional Conversational Genres," Southern Folklore Quarterly 32 (1968), p. 51.

  9. The German proverb is given in Karl Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter (Frankfurt a. M., n.d.), p. 289; and John Barten, A Select Collection of English and German Proverbs, Proverbial Phrases, and Familiar Quotations (Hamburg, 1896), No. 6262. Barten lists the English equivalent as a proverb in its own right (rather than simply a translation), No. 1058; but the only other occurrences I have found in English identify it as a German saying (Mieder 2136, Stevenson 331:7; see Appendix B for complete bibliographic information).

Allue Morer, Antonio. Los pronósticos del tiempo en el refranero castellano. Valladolid: Biblioteca Ceres, [1969].

Conde, Manuel. Dichos ciertos...y ciertos dichos. Mexico, D.F.: Costa-Amic, 1971.

Correas, Gonzalo. Vocabulario de refranes y refranes proverbiales [1627]. Bordeaux: Institut d'Etudes Ibériques et Ibéro-américaines, Université de Bordeaux, 1967.

DRAE: Campos, Juana G. and Ana Barella, Diccionario de refranes. Boletín de la Real Academia Española, Anejo XXX. Madrid, 1975. References are by number.

Hyatt, Harry M. Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois. New York: Alma Egan Hyatt Foundation, 1935. References are by number.

Iter: Iter Sopena de refranes y frases populares. Barcelona: Ramón Sopena, 1983. References are by number.

Jaramillo Londoño, A. Testamento del paisa. Medellín: Bédout, 1961.

Kin, David. Dictionary of American Proverbs. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

Mieder, Wolfgang. The Prentice-Hall Encyclopedia of World Proverbs. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986. References are by number.

MK: Martínez Kleiser, Luis. Refranero general ideológico español. Madrid: Real Academic Española, 1953. References are by number.

---------- El tiempo y los espacios del tiempo en los refranes. Madrid: Victoriano Suárez, 1945. Cited as MK-Tiempo.

Moya, Ismael. Refranero: Refranes, proverbios, adagios, frases proverbiales, modismos refranescos, giros y otras formas paremiológicas tradicionales en la República Argentina. Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, 1944.

O'Kane, Eleanor. Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media. Boletín de la Real Academia Española, Anejo II. Madrid, 1959.

Oxford: The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. 3rd ed., rev. by F. P.Wilson with an introduction by Joanna Wilson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Sbarbi, José María. Gran diccionario de refranes de la lengua española. Buenos Aires: Joaquín Gil, 1943.

Stevenson, Burton. The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases New York: Macmillan, 1948. References are by number.

Taylor, Archer. The Proverb and an Index to the Proverb. Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associates, 1962.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere. Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. References are by number.


The informants are identified by pseudonyms. "Tía Dolores" at the time of interview was approximately 60 years of age, "Mercedes" was in her early fifties, and "Marta" was in her late forties. All were lifelong residents of the town in which the interviews took place. In the annotations for each entry, I have noted only the portions that differ from the versions provided by the informants. Except in the case of variants, I have not included for any item more than two annotations from Spain. For information on the sources of annotation, see the bibliography at the end of the article.

  • 1) AÑO de nieve es año de bienes. (A year of snow is a year of prosperity [lit., "goods"].) (Mercedes)
    Spain: DRAE 208 (Año de nieves, año de bienes); Correas 81 (like DRAE; also año de mieses). Argentina: Moya 326 (like DRAE). Cf., for Mexico, Conde 46 Año de hielos, año de duelos, "Year of ice, year of sorrow."

    2) Cuando vayas a acostarte, lleva el BRASERO a otra parte. (When you go to bed, move the charcoal heater to another place.) (Tía Dolores)
    "Porque se come el oxígeno" ("because it eats up the oxygen").

    3) CASA huespedeá, comida y deshonrá. (A house with many guests [will be] eaten up and dishonored) (Tía Dolores)
    Spain: DRAE 717 (hospedada...y denostada); O'Kane 72 (Casa convidada, comida y deshonorada); Correas 373 (like DRAE; also Casa convidada, pobre y denostada).
    Those who come as guests eat a lot and then gossip about the hosts (inf.).

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

    22) Tras de la SIESTA ir al baño hace muchísimo daño. (After the siesta, taking a bath causes great harm) (Tía Dolores)

    23) No estés al SOL sin sombrero ni en agosto ni en enero. (Don't be in the sun without a hat either in August or in January) (Tía Dolores)
    Spain: MK 58.758.

    24) El que SUDANDO va a la calle, es preciso que algún mal halle. (He who goes out into the street when he is perspiring, will necessarily fall ill) (Tía Dolores)

    25) Cuando TRUENA y relampaguea, no subas a la azotea. (When there is thunder and lightning, don't go up onto the rooftop) (Tía Dolores)


The sayings used in the survey are arranged here according to the frequency with which each item was designated a "proverb," as shown in the first column of figures. The second column shows the number of respondents who indicated that the saying was familiar to them. The annotations following each saying did not appear on the questionnaire. For complete information, see the bibliography at the end of the article.

  • Proverb / Familiar

    38 (95%) / 39 (98%) l. Haste makes waste. (Oxford 356, Stevenson 1082:8, Whiting H85)

    38 (95%) / 38 (95%) 2. The early bird catches the worm. (Oxford 211, Stevenson 180:11, Whiting B236)

    35 (88%) / 37 (93%) 3. Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. (Oxford 211, Stevenson 1995:7, Whiting B135)

    33 (83%) / 40 (100%) 4. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. (Oxford 17 [var.], Stevenson 86:1, Whiting A103)

    28* (72%) / 4 (10%) 5. Eat at pleasure, drink by measure. (Oxford 214, Mieder 4338, Stevenson 665:5)

    27 (68%) / 40 (100%) 6. Money can't buy happiness. (Whiting M197)

    27 (68%) / 36 (90%) 7. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (Oxford 683, Stevenson 2005:1, Whiting R126)

    22 (55%) / 3 (8%) 8. Fresh pork and new wine kill a man before his time. (Kin 77)

    22 (55%) / 6 (15%) 9. After dinner rest a while; after supper walk a mile. (Oxford 6 [sit a while], Stevenson 1102:8, Whiting D169)

    20 (50%) / 3 (8%) 10. If you watch a person out of sight, they will be back before night. (Hyatt 8265)

    20 (50%) / 15 (38%) 11. Ring around the moon, brings a storm soon. (Hyatt 411)

    18 (45%) / 7 (18%) 12. Rain before seven, stop before eleven. (Oxford 662 [fine before eleven], Stevenson 1933:1, Whiting R29; Hyatt 471)

    17 (43%) / 17 (43%) 13. Rainbow at night, sailor's delight. (Oxford 662, Stevenson 1933:7, Whiting R32; Hyatt 511)

    The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

    6 (15%) / 3 (8%) 20. Lightning in the north means an immediate rain. (Hyatt 332)

Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California at Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1532

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