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The English proverb "A place for everything and everything in its place" is a convenient text on which to base some remarks about the historical study and interpretation of proverbs. We may begin with examples of the proverb. These are surprisingly few in number and recent in date. We learn this from the standard English collections: G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Prouerbial Phrases (London, 1929), The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2nd ed., Oxford, 1948), and Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs... (New York, 1948), to which we may add such collections limited in time or space as Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), which does not include our proverb, and Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases 1820~1880 (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), which illustrate restrictions in regard to time or place. These are the chief sources of the information used in the following remarks and will not be cited later except for special reasons.

Historical and other studies in proverbs are much complicated by the fact that collectors usually do not indicate where they found their texts and what the dates of the texts may be. An illustration of the value of this information is readily seen in the interpretation of the comparison "like a bull in a china shop," for which see Archer Taylor, Proverbial Comparisons from California (Berkeley, 1954), p. 22. No example of this older than the nineteenth century has been cited and it appears to be unknown in other than English use. This situation is explained by the fact that a bull actually invaded a London china shop in 1773. This explains the lack of early examples and the limitation of the saying to English use.

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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.

Let us now turn to the proverb with which we are concerned: "A place for everything and everything in its place." Marshall McLuhan has recently explained it as an allusion to printing and the necessity of returning type to its box, when it has been used; see his Understanding Media (1964). To be sure, the linotype and other modern procedures dispense with all this and his ingenious explanation must consequently imply the invention of the proverb, if it is to be readily understood as an allusion to a printing shop, at some time before the middle of the last century. The explanation does not rest upon evidence but is expected to win the reader's assent as being obviously true. Explanations of this sort are all too numerous in the case of proverbs for which examples ranging widely in time and place are lacking or have not been collected and studied.

During the last half- century a considerable number of dated and localized examples of our proverb have become available. The first examples appear to be those in Thomas C. Halliburton, Nature, I, 164 (1855) and some other popular novelists who wrote in the next dozen years. In 1875 Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted it in his Journals. The span between Halliburton and the other novelists is great enough to assure us that the proverb was currently used after the middle of the nineteenth century. Samuel Smiles, an author of moralizing and didactic works, wrote in Thrift (1875): "Order is most useful in the management of everything... Its maxim is, A place for everything and everything in its place." This suggests the direction in which we should look for the origin of the proverb. And we are confirmed in doing so by such a maxim as that cited by the forgotten novelist Elizabeth Hamilton who wrote in The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808. See V.S. Lean, Collectanea, III, 448): "Do everything in its proper time, keep everything to its proper use, put everything in its proper place." We shall return to this bit of advice from an orderly housewife. Such modern variations as "A niche for everything and everything in its niche" (1936) and "A tidy person with a place for everything and everything in its place" (1941) are clearly allusions to the household. For examples showing the wide use of our proverb see V. S. Lean (Collectanea, III, 401) with a citation from England (1902), B. J. Whiting from North Carolina (1950), see The Frank C. Brown Collection, I, 459; Austin E. Fife from Virginia (1952); Owen S. Adams from California in 1948 ( Western Folklore, IX, 142), and Frances M. Barbour in 1965 (Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases from Southern Illinois, Carbondale, p. 142). The standard collections cite these (which have been cited to show wide distribution) and more,--enough to establish the general currency of the proverb.

If we look abroad, we find no example of our proverb in Danish, Swedish, and Finnish or in Modern Greek and Italian, as friends experienced in collecting and studying proverbs tell me. This fact should awaken once more doubt of an explanation based on printing practice. If this explanation were correct, we would expect to find an example in German and in languages in which German proverbs are familiarly used. This is not the case. Arguments from both history and geography compel us to look in another direction.

The direction in which we should look has already been suggested, but before insisting on it, let us note a simpler version of the idea incorporated in it. The very simple proverbs "There is a place for everything" and "Everything in its place" are familiar enough to me in daily use, although I do not find them recorded in English collections. Hans Christian Andersen used such a proverb in 1853 as a title for a short story: "Alt paa sin rette plads (Everything in its right place)." Such a saying lends itself easily to expansion as we find in the Danish "Hvert paa sin sted, og pispotten paa skabet," which I need not translate, was reported as early as the end of the seventeenth century.[1] We see a different expansion in the verses of a minor English poet:

"There is a place for everything
In eart, or sky, or sea,
Where it may find its proper use,
And of advantage be,"
Quoth Augustine, the saint.[2]

The origin of "There is a place for everything" is not far to seek. It is a variation of the ancient "Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo" (To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.--Ecclesiastes 3:1). This may very well have been known to St Augustine, if we insist upon identifying the versifier's ascription. However this may be, this notion is often found in collections of proverbs (see Stevenson, Home Book, pp. 2051:1, 2328:5). However this may be, Montaigne and many others used the idea, and Chaucer credited it to Solomon. More interesting and more important than such details (which prove the wide use of the proverb) is the fact that it was easily expanded. We have already noted an instance in the previously quoted maxim recorded by Elizabeth Hamilton. Similar expansions that Stevenson quotes are the eighteenth- century "Every Thing has its Time, and that Time must be watch'd," Thomas Jefferson's "There is a time for all things; for advancing and for retiring" (1821), and Thomas Babington Macauley's "There is a time for everything,--a time to set up, and a time to pull down" (1832).

The inferences to be drawn from my discussion are various and obvious enough. We cannot safely study the meaning, origin, and history of a proverb without having at our disposal a generous stock of parallels from as many times and places as possible. As far as the available evidence goes, "A place for everything and everything in its place" is a proverb of rather recent origin in England. It is a derivative of "Everything in its place" or "There is a place for everything." This has a counterpart in a still older and still more widely known "There is a time for everything." Proverbs about time and place are closely related to each other and are easily modified by adding details.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 129-132

  1. Aage Hansen, ed., Aldmindelige danske ordsproge (Copenhagen, 1944), No. 10789. This collection was first printed at Copenhagen in 1682--1688. See also N. F. S. Grundtvig, Danske ordsprog og mundheld (Copenhagen, 1845), No. 1231; E. Mau Danske ordsprogs- skat (2 vols., Copenhagen, 1879), No. 9557. I am indebted to I. Kjaer for these references and other good counsel.
  1. John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 11th ed., Boston, 1939, p. 706.


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