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


"Can the blind lead the blind?" (Luke 6:39; see also Matt. 15:14)[1] and the parallels to this question in either matter or form have been generally accepted as proverbial. We see in them instances of a somewhat unusual proverbial pattern that can be represented as X (a noun) . . . (a verb) X. This pattern is to be set apart from the tautological A bargain is a bargain[2] and the pattern we see in The great fish eat up the small (Oxford, p. 264) or Great thieves hang little ones (Oxford 265), in which contrasting adjectives claim attention and the repetition of the noun is understood but not expressed. The last pattern we also see in Bad money drives out good.[3] This is allied to the many Renaissance proverbs and sententious remarks like One deceit (nail) drives out another,[4] in which the verbal phrase "drives out" is characteristic. Morris P. Tilley gives English examples with deceit, fire, grief, love, nail, poison, and wedge and cites Erasmus for Latin examples--not all of them appear to be classical Latin--with amor, clavus, dolor, and ira. In order to put it on record I cite still another pattern represented by the oral Colorado saying It takes a mine to work a mine, but this has only a remote similarity.

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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.

With the addition of a few texts that caught my eye while consulting authorities. I find the following instances of our pattern X--X in the Oxford Dictionary. More instances can be turned up, but the following list offers a reasonably satisfactory survey of the use of the pattern:

Art consists in concealing art.
Oxford 14; Stevenson 96:10. The Latin origin of this sententious remark is clear, but its date, origin, and history are uncertain. Its proverbial quality is doubtful.

Without danger we cannot get beyond danger.
Oxford 129; Stevenson 485:3, citing Publilius Syrus; Tilley D37.

Diamond cut diamond.
Oxford 144; Stevenson 50:12; Taylor and Whiting 101; Tilley D323. Only English instances are cited and none older than 1604. See also Notes and Queries, 11th Ser., 10 (1914) 227; 194 (1949) 126.

Dog does not eat dog.
Oxford 151; Stevenson 611:9, citing Varro and Juvenal; Taylor and Whiting 106.

Dog eat dog.
Stevenson 611:9; Taxlor and Whiting 101. A modern English derivative of the preceding.

Like breeds like.
Stevenson 1428:6, citing an instance in Tennyson's poems (1842).

Like cures like.
Oxford 368; Stevenson 1557:15; Taylor and Whiting 222. A translation of Similia similibus curantur, which appears to have been invented by S. C. F. Hahnemann about 1796. He attributed the idea to Hippocrates. Something similar is seen in Shakespeare King John (1596) III. i. 277 and falsehood falsehood cures.

Like loves like. A fabricated heading.
Oxford 368. See many sense- parallels in Stevenson 1431:2.

Like will to like.
Oxford 368--369; Stevenson 1431:2; Tilley L286. Here we may include Like seeks after like (Stevenson 1431:2, citing Empedocles); Like to like (Oxford 368; Stevenson 1430:1--1432:4; Tilley L283, L284). The collectors cite many instances of our pattern in their notes, especially those to the last proverb.

Like will to like, quoth the devil to the collier.
Oxford 369; Tilley L287. A derivative of the preceding.


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.



Let us turn now to the classical and patristic Latin examples of our pattern collected in A. Otto, Die Sprichwörter der Römer (Leipzig 1890).
I find there the following:


Canis caninam non est (p. 70 canis 9).
Tanquam clavo clavum eiciendum (85 clavus 2).
Fallacia Alia aliam trudit (131 fallacia).
Sic figulus figulo, faber fabro invidet (36 figulus).
Ne ad malum addas malum (207 malum 1).
Aliud ex alio malum (207 malum 2).
Manus manum lavat (210 manus 3).
Nihil ex nihilo (243 nihil 1).
Pares cum paribus facillime congregantur (264 par 1).
Par pro pari referto (264 par 3).
Senes est aequom senibus obsequi (264 par 1).
Similia similibus gaudent (264 par 1).

The list is brief and the comment can be brief. Two proverbs which do not repeat the noun--Fallacia Alia aliam trudit, Aliud ex alio malum--resemble structurally--and the first in matter--the English One deceit (nail) drives out another, and all (Latin and English) have parallels which do repeat the noun. The replacement of the noun by some form of "alius" may thus have a Latin original and have spread in English. More important than this minor development is the fact that Otto cites Greek parallels to all the proverbs in the list except Par pro pari referto, and the lack of a Greek parallel to this seems more likely to be accidental than significant. One can, I think, safely assert that our proverbial pattern is not native Latin usage. The Romans knew it as a rhetorical device: we have already noted Ars est celare artem and may add the Ovidian Mors morte pianda est (Metam. 8.483) and the Manilian Cascum duxisse cascam non mirabile, as cited by Varro (see Stevenson 198--199: 11),[6] although the last of these does not agree precisely with our pattern. The pattern might seem to have a Greek origin, and Stevenson cites (198--199: 11, 1965: 2, and 1968: 5) several examples that might confirm this opinion. Yet, the lack of an adequate dictionary of classical Greek proverbs makes it difficult to study such a stylistic question. Until Dr. Jürgen Werner gives us his promised collection, discussion of the matter may wait. It is enough to note that Stevenson cites instances of the pattern from Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Its use in Greek is both old and general.


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.



Let us not stop here. The Egyptian Take good heed to this matter: a blow struck brings a counter- blow in its train (Stevenson 1971: 6), which is credited to Kheti I, king of Egypt about 2500 B. C., shows the characteristic pattern. More than this, the proverbial quality of the king's advice is confirmed by Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1430, written two thousand years later. I am now on thin ice, but shall venture farther. Dr. Edmund I. Gordon prints the Sumerian proverb níg- mu níg àm- ku.[7] I know no Sumerian, but my eyes tell me that nig is repeated and the glossary tells me that àm- ku is a verb. In his translation That which is mine has made (other) things strange, Dr. Gordon eliminates the repetition of nig 'thing' to obtain intelligible English. But,--do we have here the oldest instance of our pattern? These combinations may be called guesses, but I would conjecture that this proverbial pattern is ancient, that it may have its origin in the Near East, that the ancient Greeks borrowed it from their neighbors, and that classical tradition and the New Testament gave it to the Western world.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 115-121

  1. See G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London 1929) 56; William G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2d ed., Oxford 1948) 51; Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Scventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor 1950) B 452; B. J. Whiting, "Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings from Scottish Writings before 1600", Mediaeval Studies II (1949) 140; Archer Taylor and B. J. Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases 1820--1880 (Cambridge, Mass. 1958) 33; Burton E. Stevenson The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York 1948) 198--I99:II. These will be subsequently cited by the authors' names; the Oxford Dictionary will be cited as Oxford. The international currency of the proverb is vouched for by Augusto Arthaber, Dizionario comparato di proverbi e modi proverbiali italiani, latini, francesi, spagnoli, tedeschi, inglesi e greci antichi (Milan n.d.) 273. Strangely enough Arthaber does not mention the Biblical source. I have no faith in a modern Chinese parallel cited by Stevenson and take it for a translation of the Biblical passage.

  2. Tilley B 76.

  3. Oxford 19; Stevenson 1611: 3. It is curious that no instance of Gresham's Law older than 1902 is cited in proverb collections.

  4. See Tilley D 174, F 277, G 446, L 538, N 17, P 457, W 234.

  5. Parömiologische Betrachtungen, FF Communications, 172 (Helsinki 1957) 36.

  6. Otto denies the proverbial quality of this passage; see p. 77 note*. It is cited here as an example of the rhetorical device.

  7. Sumerian Proverbs. Glimpses of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia, Museum monographs (Philadelphia 1959) 46 (Collection I, No. 10).


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