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The health of the mind and the body has preoccupied people since the beginning of human existence. The classical Latin proverb "Mens sana in corpore sano" formulated by the satirical Roman poet Juvenal (60?-140?) and appearing in English translation as "A sound mind in a sound body" for the first time in the year 1578 (Wilson 1970:755) merely summarizes in a typically proverbial parallel structure a bit of folk wisdom based on generations of common-sense medical observation and experience that continues to be as valid a truth today as it was centuries ago. The same is true for such general health rules as "Diseases come on horseback, but go away on foot", "Health is better than wealth", "Desperate diseases must have desperate cures", "Bitter pills may have blessed effects", and of course also the Latin proverb "Similia similibus curantur" or its English translation "Like cures like" which became the underlying principle of homeopathy (Trºmpy 1966). Such ancient medical advice in the form of folk proverbs was translated in the Middle Ages into most vernacular languages (Gluski 1971:190-193), making these proverbs part of an internationally disseminated corpus.

There exists, however, also a considerable number of medical proverbs which originated and gained currency in individual ethnic or national languages (Kelly 1879:199-203, Christy 1887:489-492). There is not a proverb collection that doesn't contain some proverbs commenting on matters of health or illness, and special collections of medical proverbs have also been assembled dating back to the late Middle Ages (Moll 1958:534-537). An early specialized English collection of medical proverbs is included in John Ray's (1627-1705) A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs (1670) with the telling title "Proverbs and Proverbial Observations belonging to Health, Diet and Physick" (pp. 25-32). Here we find already such well-known health rules as "After dinner sit a while, after supper walk a mile", "A good surgeon must have an eagle's eye, a lion's heart, and a lady's hand", "Butter is gold in the morning, silver at noon, lead at night", "One hour's sleep before midnight is worth two hours after", and "The best physicians are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman". Vincent Stuckey Lean (1820-1899) published in 1902 dozens of English and other European medical proverbs dealing with dietary matters, drink, fruit, meals, vegetables, food as well as health and sickness (Lean 1902:I,478-509). It is here where we find such everyday bits of wisdom as "Eat to live and not live to eat", "Cider on beer, never fear; beer upun cider, makes a bad rider", "The first step to health is to know that we are sick", and "Every disease will have its course". While these texts are admittedly not particularly enlightening from a scientific point of view, they nevertheless express some common-sense attitudes about basic health matters. Notice though the ironic tones of such proverbs as "Sickness soaks the purse", "God does the cure and the physician takes the fee for it", "One doctor makes work for another", and "Doctors make the very worst patients". Here the folk comments on some basic problems of the medical profession which are issues of controversy as much today as in former times (Bebermeyer 1978, Militz 1981).

But there is no doubt that most so-called medical proverbs are rather general statements that do not deal with very specific ailments or diseases. As Russell A. Elmquist has noted in an essay on "English Medical Proverbs", proverbs hardly "give specific medical advice of a scientific nature" (Elmquist 1934-1935:78, see also Garrison 1928, and Taylor 1931:121-129). For the modern physician, surgeon or even medical professor, these health proverbs most likely appear a bit trite and certainly unscientific as far as the modern medical profession is concerned. Ancient proverbs obviously cannot compete with the scientific wisdom of scholarly books and journal articles on diseases that were not even known a decade ago. We thus have no proverbs about legionaire's disease, organ transplants or AIDS, but there are dozens of proverbs about general health problems, such as the common cold, normal diet, sleep, hygiene, etc. (Loux and Richard 1978).


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

The four proverbs discussed in some detail in these pages represent the most popular medical wisdom expressed in folk proverbs. They do not contain scientific information based on laboratory research, but they are rather common-sense expressions based on generations of observation and experience. As with anything in life, their advice should be taken with moderation or cum grano salis. Already Hippocrates (460?-377?) argued that "Everything in excess is opposed to nature" (Stevenson 1948:719), and that is certainly true also for preventive medicine, sleeping patterns, taking care of colds and fevers, and eating apples. The fact that these proverbs give only general medical advice for healthy living will prevent them from becoming obsolete as many folk remedies have done. Our four proverbs are general enough that they have withstood the test of time and science, and it is our prognosis that they will continue to be used by people of all walks of life for generations to come. While modern medicine advances with breath-taking speed, whose intricacies are to be understood only be the experts and appreciated by those who benefit from them, traditional medical proverbs remind us of the simple pleasures of life to be enjoyed as long as we adhere to everyday health rules. As stated at the beginning of these remarks, there are dozens of other sensible medical proverbs commenting on health and illness, and there are, of course, literally hundreds of general proverbs advising us how to live properly both medically and morally. Some of these gems of wisdom continue to have significant ethical value for people of a modern society. The platitude that "An apple a day makes 365 apples a year" (Mieder 1989:271) could therefore easily be varied to read "A proverb a day makes 365 proverbs a year", and these proverbs are certainly food for thought just as apples are food for the body to assure that we continue to enjoy healthy minds in healthy bodies.



References Cited:

*Previously published in Mieder Proverbs Are Never Out of Season. Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 152-172

Barbour Frances M. 1974. A Concordance to the Sayings in Franklin's "Poor Richard". Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Co.

Bebermeyer, Renate 1978. Ñrzte im Spiegel des Sprichworts. Sprachspiegel 34:131-138.

Bradley, F. W. 1937. South Carolina Proverbs. Southern Folklore Quarterly 1:57-101.

Busk, R. H. 1883. Early to Bed. Notes and Queries 6th series, 8:136.

Christy, Robert 1887. Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Cook, Eliza 1869. The Poetical Works of Eliza Cook. London: Frderick Warne.

Curwen, Samuel 1972. The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist. Ed. Andrew Oliver. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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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 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1952. Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. In The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Ed. Newman Ivey White, vol. I, 329-501. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1968. Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings mainly before 1500. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1977. Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1989. Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Williams, George Walton 1984. Shakespeare's Metaphors of Health: Food, Sport, and Life-Preserving Rest. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14:187-202.

Wilson, F. P. 1970. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Woodburn, Roland Rickey 1975. Proverbs in Health Books of the English Renaissance. Diss. Texas Tech University.

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


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The banner illustration is a fragment of Pieter Bruegel's painting "The Netherlandish Proverbs", 1559