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De Proverbio - Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Proverbs, Quotations, Sayings, Wellerisms.



The proverb offers very convenient illustrations of problems that arise in every genre of folklore, but I shall not extend these remarks by drawing obvious comparisons and leave that task to the reader. It is a very convenient basis for discussion because the texts are familiar to everyone or, if they are not, they can be easily quoted. The following remarks concern what have been called proverbs by good authority and are couched in a proverbial pattern. In order to write a good newspaper article, we are told that a reporter is advised to discover and report the answers to the questions, "Who, What, When, Where and Why?" From one version to another of this advice the questions and their order vary somewhat, and such variations imply oral currency of the formula.[1] In the Middle Ages this series of questions was used in schools to teach pupils how to write. The schoolmaster gave them a proverb and required them to answer the questions "Quis? Quid? Quomodo? Cur? Quibus auxiliis?" and so on. Ultimately these questions are Aristotle's categories of the accidents or aspects of matter. For convenience I begin with "What?"

What is a proverb? In folklore the names of such genres as the proverb, riddle, tale, or ballad have a wide range of meanings in a single language, country, or age and precise definitions, if they are possible, have been the occasion of much dispute. Identification of these meanings and discussion of them must rest on a generally accepted basis, in other words, on a collection. Our first question has immediately brought another in its train or, as the proverb says, "One thing leads to another." I cannot readily cite this from a collection. This inability to cite parallels is in itself an attractive aspect of proverb studies: we can easily add to and improve our resources. Let the Wellerism--I shall define the term later--"'One thing leads to another,' as the actress tried to warn the bishop when he tried to help her with her galoshes" suffice to show the traditional quality of the proverb.[2]

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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 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.



The question "Where?" is not very different from such questions as "Where are proverbs used?" or "Who collects them?" As early as Sumerian times men made collections for didactic purposes and especially for the schoolroom. In the Middle Ages and even in our own time this is still a typical stimulus. Men buy and read collections to awaken and enlarge reflections on the world and the nature of man, to suggest subjects for conversation, or to provide themselves with comment appropriate to situations in daily life. Such purposes are obviously closely allied to the essence of the moralizing proverb. Probably the collections give a fairly adequate idea of such proverbs. Proverbs expressing ideas that cannot be readily brought into line with sober moralizing or that employ a whimsical manner are likely to be recorded less frequently than platitudes. In literature proverbs are often used to characterize country people and the vulgar generally, but they may on occasion be used in sophisticated writing for special reasons. Children's books allude to the most familiar proverbs and thus offer useful evidence of their currency. ODEP quotes Goody Two-Shoes of the eighteenth and somebody's Field Full of Furry Folk, Charles Kingsley's Water Babies, and Lewis Carroll of the nineteenth century. Evidence from such sources is a reliable guide to what was traditionally current. Jan Brunvand's collection of proverbs used by Indiana authors before 1890--many of them writers of children's books-- gives a good idea of the conventional moralizing of a frontier population.

And now the question, "To what end?" Why do men use proverbs? An ingenious writer pointed out a generation ago that each genre of folklore has its own characteristic special purpose. As a guide to life's problems, the proverb summarizes a situation, passes a judgment, or offers a course of action. It is a consolation in difficulties large and small and a guide when a choice must be made. It expresses a morality suited to the common man. It is cautious and conservative in recommending the middle way: "Virtus in medio, Nequid nimis." It is not a call to high adventure. In the Renaissance men made collections entitled "The Crossing of Proverbs", that is to say, collections setting one proverb against another. I cite examples to show how typical of proverbs this contrast that marks the middle way is. "Hew to the line" calls for adherence to principle and is moderated by "You never miss a slice from a cut loaf." "Hitch your wagon to a star" appears also as "Don't hitch your wagon to a star", an equivalent of "Discretion is the better part of valor". "A fool may sometimes give a wise man counsel" is the opposite of "A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer". The advice is commonplace: "You can't eat your cake and have it, too; You've made your bed. Now lie in it; Listeners never hear good of themselves; Sweep before your own door; Opportunity makes the thief; First come, first served; Self-praise is no recommendation." Comparisons are often sharply drawn and summarize a situation cogently: "The field is always greener over the fence; The grey mare is the better horse; There is no smoke without fire; Honey catches more flies than gall; There's no help in crying over spilled milk; Praise the bridge when you have crossed it."

Proverbs are easily used in passing judgment and can therefore appear in legal contexts: "Two wrongs don't make a right; An Englishman's house is his castle; Let the buyer beware (Caveat emptor)". In the Renaissance instruction in law was often given by stating and interpreting maxims and for this purpose men made collections. Law schools do not now look with favor on this way of teaching the law. Since the interpretation of a proverb for legal purposes may resemble the explanation of a riddle, proverbs and riddles are at times, especially in African tradition, likely to be grouped together. Over the centuries the use of proverbs in literature has varied in many different ways, and generalizations are difficult. Medieval and Renaissance authors seem to have preferred to cite proverbs with little alteration; sophisticated modern authors make allusive reference that may pass unnoticed or gain interest from their obscurity. In saying "The grimly cynical night that makes all cats gray", Robert Louis Stevenson was hinting at the proverb "At night all cats are gray". And proverbs or proverbial phrases may be present, although they are no longer often used and are not immediately understood. For example, in the riddle "Robbers came to our house / And we were all in. / The house leaped out at the windows / And we were all ta'en (i.e., taken).--Fish in net" the reference to the house leaping out the windows means that the water flowed through the meshes of the net and also that great disorder prevailed. This idiomatic meaning of the proverbial phrase is now rarely used, but only a little more than a century ago Charles Dickens could write in Sketches by Boz:


The whole family was infected with the mania for private theatricals; the house, usually so clean and tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton's expressive description, "regularly turned out o'windows".

Dictionaries of English proverbs include many varieties of proverbs and proverbial sayings. I select three of them that have received less attention than they deserve: the Wellerism, the proverbial phrase, and the proverbial comparison and comment on them in this order.

There is an old story that John Heywood presented a collection of proverbs to Queen Elizabeth I with pride and assured her that it was complete. She asked whether he had noted "'Bate me an ace', quoth Bolton" and he had not. We no longer know what this Wellerism means and cannot explain the allusion. Wellerisms take their name from Sam Weller in the Pickwick Papers because he had a special liking for them. They are quotations accompanied by mention of the speaker (often with his name) and an allusion to the scene: "'Sour grapes', said the fox and could not reach them." This is obviously enough an allusion to a familiar Aesopic fable that has been converted into a Wellerism in post- classical times. There are half a dozen or more classical Wellerisms and at least one much older Sumerian example.

Wellerisms in which an animal speaks are usually allusions to fables, although I am not sure that there is one underlying "'What a dust I raise,' said the fly as it sat on the wheel". Wellerisms in which a man or woman speaks may be actual remarks that caught popular fancy and became traditional: "'That I would fain see,' said blind Hugh", which was current in the sixteenth century, may be such a quotation, for there was then a famous wit called Blind Hugh. A Swedish scholar has conjectured that generic names replaced specific names when the appropriateness of the specific names was forgotten. Thus we may have, although he does not cite this example, "'I see' said the blind man" and with a further development involving a pun, "'I see,' said the blind man and picked up his hammer and saw".


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.



This account of proverbs and kindred forms has been brief. I could wish that one might apply to it the saying "Good things come in small packages." (the record of this proverb is all too scanty). However that may be, "There is an end to everything."


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 74-83

  1. The most recent instance I have noted is Samuel Beckett, Murphy (New York, [1957]), p. 17: "He . . . wanted to know the who, what, where, by what means, why, in what way and when. Scratch an old man and find a Quintilian." The novel was published in 1938. In The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), ch. xxiv, Margery Allingham gives a somewhat different version: "Are you sleuthing a bit in your own inimitable way? Is the old cerebral machine ticking over? Who and what and why and wherefore, so to speak?"

  2. Quoted from Leslie Charteris, "The Ever-Loving Spouse."

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