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



A proverb is wise; it belongs to many people; it is ingenious in form and idea; and it was first invented by an individual and applied by him to a particular situation. My title illustrates both the origin and the nature of a proverb. One morning at breakfast Lord John Russell, the English statesman who negotiated the treaty to put an end to the Seven Years War, is said to have defined a proverb by saying it is One man's wit and all men's wisdom. Popular use has shifted the order of the elements and their emphasis. A proverb is, in the first place, wisdom--what sort of wisdom we shall see later, and the element of individual invention has subordinate importance.

What is wisdom, which is the first and most significant quality of a proverb? The easiest and surest answer is to look at some samples. For one thing, it is moral advice based on experience. Honesty is the best policy is familiar enough and cannot be said too often. Don't cross your bridges before you come to them is sound counsel from a traveler's experience. The truth may be bitter and cynical: Never give a sucker an even break, Money doesn't grow on trees, and Them as has gits. I know very well that the last of these is an aphorism coined by a California poet. Still, we can safely say that One man's wit (as Lord John would have it) has become traditional.

A proverb is practical as well as moral wisdom. Rain before seven, shine before eleven is a traditional observation about the weather that is more likely to be true in England than in California and thus betrays its foreign origin. Where it was at home it had practical value. You must eat a peck of dirt before you die means, as proverbs often do, two things. Either one should not mind too much what has been called "clean dirt" or one will suffer many humiliations during one's life. An apple a day drives the doctor away is proverbial medical recommendation, and probably a very sensible one, too.

Every aspect of life yields general advice, that is to say, proverbs. Law gives us Every man's--or an Englishman's--house is his castle. First come, first served is an old rule about bringing corn to the mill. Silence gives consent and The king can do no wrong are legal maxims. Beside these one can name proverbs giving us a kind of law not written down in books: All's fair in love and war, Hands off is fair play, and Don't kick a man when he is down. Does Every dog is allowed his first bite have any standing in court? From the church we have An honest confession is good for the soul, and modern psychology tells us how wise this advice is and urges us to put it into practice. In daily life we see that A new broom sweeps clean, Too many cooks spoil the broth, and You can't spoil a rotten egg. The advice may be ironical: Bachelors' wives and old maids' children are well taught. There is sound counsel in Fish or cut bait and Make friends while you are going up, you may need them coming down. Few proverbs reflect a highly organized social and commercial life: Business is business, Cut your losses and let your profits run, and You never lost money taking a profit. Here are enough examples of the kinds of wisdom found in proverbs, and we are told Enough is enough.

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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.



We are told that A cat may look at a king refers to a visit of Emperor Maximilian to the free city of Regensburg. On this occasion he visited the shop of a man making woodcuts. The cat on the workbench, when it was disturbed, rose, stretched, and looked insultingly at the emperor. No doubt courtiers noted and remembered the incident. However, Regensburg was a free city and was visited rarely by the emperor and then only on invitation. We can fix definitely the date of Maximilian's visit, and the proverb was in print some years earlier. Another and perhaps more fantastic explanation is offered for Before you can say Jack Robinson. It is supposed to have a French origin. "Jacques" is a name for a servant, and "Robinson" for an umbrella. On seeing rain clouds, one calls, "Jacques! Robinson!" and a servant appears instantly with an umbrella. I cannot be sure about the French scenery of this explanation, but, strange as the facts are, there was a century ago a circus company owned by John Robinson and "Jack Robinson" is--or was--a term used by circus folk for a sudden shower.

Circumstances may popularize a proverb. Mad as a hatter has its origin in the fact that hatters used mercury in making felt and were poisoned by it. Their staggering gait and thick speech made it possible to call them "mad". This comparison might not have come into general use but for two accidents. Three candidates for Parliament in the 1830's were hatters. Political opponents called two of them mad with or without good reason, and the third acknowledged publicly that he had been in an insane asylum. This might have been sufficient to establish the comparison in traditional use, but Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland ensured its acceptance.

Because proverbs are the "wisdom of many", men have often tried to characterize the "many" by choosing examples and drawing inferences from them. One cannot learn much from such studies. Those who have written have not had open minds. They knew--or thought they knew-- the answer before they began. The history of proverbs is so confused and so little studied that we can do little in this direction.

We come to the second half of Lord John Russell's definition, that is, "one man's wit." A proverb is an invention of an individual who uses ideas, words, and ways of speaking that are generally familiar. Because he does so, his sayings win acceptance and circulate in tradition. The phrases that accompany proverbs recognize this fact. A user of proverbs is likely to say, "As the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare says," but we may look for it vainly in such places. While the phrase may not be true of the particular proverb, it has a general truth: some one person did say it for the first time. The ascription is not necessarily true and that fact need not trouble us greatly. "Confucius say" was a popular cliché some years ago but does not prove a descent from Confucius or even a Chinese source. "Little Audrey," "my grandfather," "the old feller," and most popular of all, "they" did not necessarily invent the sayings which they are credited, but mention of them stresses the share of the individual in proverbs. Abraham Lincoln seems to have given us, Don't swap horses when crossing a stream, and the prizefighter James J. Corbett, The bigger they come, the harder they fall.


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.



It is hard, indeed impossible, to know what men live by (is this book title now proverbial?) or what makes them click (which is perhaps proverbial and is certainly a cliché). Proverbs give us as clear an idea as we can hope to get about the forces that influence men and the ideals that they hold. Their range is limited to rather commonplace observations, but most of us are rather commonplace, too. In difficult situations men turn to proverbs for answers, and they find them there. In civilizations without writing, proverbs are used in settling disputes, and the man who quotes the proverb best suited to the situation wins. I have heard a judge on the bench say, Two wrongs don't make a right, and felt that his comment clarified the situation and prevented it from becoming worse. In a difficult situation we say, with a shrug, It could be worse, The worst is yet to come. Such consolation is poor help, but it is help and many have nothing better. Don't count your chickens before they are hatched is a good warning to be cautious about Building castles in the air. If we are tempted to an unkind or thoughtless act, remember that The chickens, when hatched, will come home to roost. By no means have all proverbs a cynical and bitter taste. We are told Not to look at the hole in the doughnut and Everything will come right in the end. Miracles nerer cease is still true. There's gold in them thar hills, and some of it is in proverbial shape.

*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 68-73

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