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



This intensive study of a single proverb is intended to show the variety and difficulty of the problems that arise in investigating even a single text. It owes a great deal to the kindness of friends, who are gratefully remembered. Because the problems are difficult and because many books have not been within my reach there is much yet to be done. Yet one can say, "It is good fishing in muddy waters."

Perhaps the first western record of our proverb is found in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, which was written not long before 1200 in England. Here it has the form "In aqua turbida piscatur uberius.''[1] This is much the same as "Piscatur in aqua turbida" without an adverb, which Burton E. Stevenson cites as a "proverbial Latin phrase" without giving a source.[2] This and its source will be discussed later. Our proverb is reported again about the same time as Map was writing as "Vulgo enim dicitur, aqua turbida piscisior" (Oxford) in the writings of Peter of Blois, who was archbishop of Bath by Henry II's appointment. Our proverb did not win a place in contemporary school collections and other anthologies of moralizing proverbs. We find it only once in a late medieval collection and then in the very different form, "Flumen confusum reddit piscantibus usum."[3] Jakob Werner and after him Hans Walther quote this from a continental European anthology that calls for special study. Its sources are obscure and its connections remain to be discovered. While it would be interesting to go farther and attempt some comparison of the number and nature of proverbs derived from fishing and those derived from hunting, the task would lead us somewhat afield. I shall say only that the first category rarely identifies the species of fish and the latter category almost always identifies the animal.

From the beginning the adjective "troubled" (turbida) or "muddy" is standard English usage. It implies a contrast with fishing in clear water or fishing in the sea. In 1509 John Fisher described this manner of fishing but did not actually cite the proverb:

Lyke as fysshers do whan they be aboute to cause fysshe to come into theyr nettes or other engyns, they trouble the waters to make them avoyde and flee from theyr wonte places.[4]

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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.



A second very old Greek reference that must be discussed here is the Aesopic fable,

The Fisherman Who Beat the Water
A fisherman was fishing in a river. When he had laid his nets and cut off the stream from bank to bank, he tied a stone to a piece of cord and began to beat the water so that the fish would make a reckless attempt to get away and become entangled in the mesh. One of the men who lived thereabouts saw him doing this and complained of his roiling the river and preventing them from drinking clear water. The fisherman said, "Well, if the river isn't troubled like this, I'll die of starvation ."
Moral: So it is with demagogues in politics. They accomplish the most when they lead their states into strife.[22]

Although this was included in the oldest collection of Aesopic fables, it does not often appear in the Renaissance and modern excerptings. This fact has no doubt contributed to a general unfamiliarity with it. Yet it has obviously had a large share in the origin and dissemination of the proverb. It is found, for example, in the proverbs collected and published by Petrus Godofredus in 1555. These were extracted and published in some subsequent editions of Erasmus, Adagia. Thus, we find it in the edition published in Paris in 1579, col. 1320:

Piscatur in aqua turbida
De eo, qui, dum alij inter se rixãtur, ipse sibi & suis commodis consulit: quem nihil morantur, sed iuuant potius aliorum incommoda. Piscatores turbidam aquam obseruare solent. vt ex ea decipuli magis nesciam facilius captent praedam. Huc spectat Erasmi pro. Anguillas captare, & apologus AEsopi de eo qui aquam turbabat vt plures caperet pisces.

Here Godofredus is citing "Piscatur in aqua turbida" as a proverb and mentions that Erasmus had already commented on it and that it is an Aesopic fable. Here is the source of Stevenson's description of "Piscatur in aqua turbida" as "The proverbial Latin phrase," a description which is not quite correct and is easily misunderstood.[23]


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 172-179

  1. W. G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. 2nd ed. rev. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948, pp. 207--208. This will be subsequently cited as Oxford. Other titles will be similarly abbreviated.
  1. Burton E. Stevenson, Thc Home Book of Proverbs . . ., New York, 1948, p. 821.

  2. Jakob Werner, Lateinische Sprichwörter und Sinnsprüche des Mittelalters, 2d ed., Heidelberg, 1966, F 53. In the first edition it is F 33. See also Hans Walther, Proverbia sententiaeque latinitatis medii aevi, 5 vols., Göttingen, 1963-1967, II, 140, No. 9684, citing this and an additional version with the reading "praestat" for "reddit". I do not fully understand Walther's remarks about the second collection called Pictaleon (which may be a corruption of Dicta leonina; see I, pp. xix and xxiv).

  3. The English Works of John Fisher, ed. John E. B. Mayer, E.E.T.S., Extra Series, 27 (1876), Treatise 78. 34-9.1. This is cited from B. J. Whiting's forthcoming collection of English proverbs before 1500. Here it is F242. I am indebted to him for the reference and other kindnesses.

  4. Oxford; Stevenson; Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Ann Arbor, 1950, F334.

  5. F. A. Stoett, Nederlandsche spreekwoorden ..., 2 vols., 4th ed., Zutphen, 1923, 1925, II, 482-483, No. 2529.

  6. Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, 1820-1880, Cambridge, Mass., 1958, p. 395.

  7. Wayland D. Hand, in The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, 7 vols., Durham, N.C., 1952-1964, VII, 474, No. 7776. I am indebted to Professor Mac E. Barrick for this and the references to Spanish parallels cited below.

  8. Helmi Haapanen, Omayeletumbulo gaawambo, Oniipa, 1958, p. 112.

  9. Bartlett Jere Whiting, "Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings from Scottish Writings before 1600, Part II," Mediaeval Studies, XIII (1931), 151.

  10. William Rothstein, Men and Manners, 1872-1900, p. 71. Cited from Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, 10th ed., New York, 1967, p. 498:11.

  11. 5 vols., Leipzig, 1867-1880, IV, col. 1808.

  12. P. J. Harrebomée, Spreekwoordenboek der nederlandsche taal, 3 vols., Utrecht, 1858-1870, II, 441. The passage in the Bijlage cited here will be found in III, 359.

  13. Väinö Solstrand, Finlands svenska folkdiktning, 3. Ordstäv, Skrifter utgivna av Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, 172, Helsingfors, 1923.

  14. Eduard Mau, Danske ordsprogs-skat, 2 vols., Copenhagen, 1879, I, 223, citing Syv's text without a parallel; Ewald Tang Kristensen, Danske ordsprog, Copenhagen, 1890.

  15. Le Roux de Lincy, Le livre des proverbes français, 2d ed., Paris, 1859, II, 370, citing no parallels.

  16. Die sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der französischen Sprache, 2 vols., Heidelberg, 1930, I, 259--260.

  17. For parallels in the Romance languages generally see Walter Gottschalk, Die bildhaften Sprichwörter der Romanen, 3 vols., Heidelberg, 1935--1938, II, 249--250. This is a compilation based on earlier collections not all of which indicate the sources of the proverbs cited. For the early Spanish proverbs see Eleanor S. O'Kane (Sister M. Katherine Elaine, C.S.C.), Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la edad media, Anejos del Boletín de la Real Academia Española, 2, Madrid, 1959, pp. 203 (revuelta), 204 (río, río vuelto). Professor Mac E. Barrick kindly gives me the following additional references: (1521?) Comedia Thebayda, Madrid, 1894, pp. 88, 471; (1528) Francesco Delicado, La lozana andaluza, Paris, 1950, 179; (1534) Feliciano de Silva, Segunda Comedia de Celestina, Madrid, 1874, pp. 192, 247; (c. 1535) Juan de Valdés, Diálogo de la lengua, Madrid, 1953, p. 107; (1547) Sancho de Muñon, Tragicomedia de Lisandro y Rosalia, Madrid, 1872, p. 12 (a servant indicates that he hopes to gain financially from knowledge of his master's love-affair); (1554) Juan Rodrígues Florián, Comedia Florinea, in Menéndez y Pelayo, Origenes de la novela, III (Madrid, 1910), 179; (1605) Francisco López de Ubeda, La pícara Justina, ed. J. Puyol, Madrid, 1912, I, 109; Vna cacuela es escusa barajas, porque como alli se mete todo confuso, huesso y pulpa, viene a tener verdad el refran viejo que A rio buelto, ganancia de pescadores y pescadoras; (1611) Sebastián de Covarrubias, Tesoro de la lengua castellana, ed. Martín de Riquer, Barcelona, 1943, s. v. anguilla (p. 120 b): Los que para medrar inquietan las repúblicas, son comparados a los pescadores de anguillas, los quales so no enturbian el agua, no puedan pescar ninguna, por lo qual se dixo: "A río buelto ganancia de pescadores," para significar un hombre apartado de todos los demás, sin trato ni comercio alguno; (1620) H. de Lena, Segunda parte de Lazarillo de Tormes, ed. E. Sims, Austin, 1925, p. 17; (c. 1625) Gonzalo Correas, Vocabulario de refranes, Madrid, 1924, p. 65a. Note "Pescare nel Torbido: To fish in troubled waters; to profit from a questionable deal" Carla Pekelis, A Dictionary of Colorful Italian Idioms (New York, 1965, p. 155).

  18. Aurora Lucas-White Lea, Literary Folklore of the Hispanic Southwest, San Antonio, 1953, p. 237.

  19. See Adagia, Paris, 1579, No. 3679. It first appeared in the edition of 1536, which is the last edition revised by Erasmus.

  20. P. M. Quitard, Dictionnaire . . . des proverbes et des locutions proverbiales de la langue française, Paris, 1842, p. 329; T. Vogel-Jørgensen, Bevingede ord, 4th ed., Copenhagen, 1955, col. 236.

  21. Lloyd W. Dal, Aesop Without Morals, New York, 1961, p. 104, No. 26. For Moral see p. 270. For the manuscript and printed versions of this fable see Ben Edwin Perry, Aesopica, I, Urbana, 1952.

  22. I leave the identification of the source of "Est captu facilis turbata piscis in unda" in Augusto Arthaber, Dizionario comparato di proverbi . . ., Milan, n.d., p. 685, No. 1362 to another time.

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