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



As far as I know, the earliest instance of the proverb discussed in this essay is a version written down about 1521 and published in 1533 by John Heywood. It is "Mary that wolde I se quod blynde Hew ('Mary! that would I [gladly] see,' said blind Hugh).''[1] This is a Wellerism or traditional proverbial form consisting of a remark with an ascription (said So-and-so) to a named or an unnamed person, occasionally an animal, and more rarely a thing.[2] Much has been written about sayings of this kind and more remains to be said, but we shall consider here only this example and shall deal particularly with the ways in which the speaker is identified.

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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 English versions of this Wellerism down to 1738 are as follows:


1632 "We'll say nothing, but we'll see," as blind Pete said to his dog (Lean II 752).
1640 "That I would fain see," quoth the blind George of Holloway (Apperson, p. 55, No. 15; Karl Pfeffer, Das elisabethanische Sprichwort in seiner Verwendung bei Ben Jonson [Diss., Giessen, 1933], p. 138, No. 271; Oxford, p. 185; Stevenson, p. 198: 6; Tilley).
cl640 "I w'ud I c'ud see't," ka' blind Hugh (Apperson, p. 55, No. 18; Tilley) .
1678 "Would I could see it," quoth blind Hugh (Apperson, p. 55, No. 18; Oxford, p. 185; Stevenson, p. 198: 6; Tilley).
1738 "Would I could see it," quoth blind Hugh (Oxford, p. 570; p. 2108: 2).

Similar sayings are widely current on the continent of Europe. The earliest instance seems to be that in Johannes Fischart, Aller Praktik Grossmutter (1572), a parody of the prognostications of the weather for the coming year. Here it appears as "'I want to see it,' said a blind man once upon a time (Ich will es sehen, sagt ein mal ein blinder).''[3] Half a dozen examples in modern German dialects ranging from Mecklenburg to Swabia are variations of "'Now we want to see,' said the blind man, as the lame man wanted to run (dance)."[4] About the same time that Fischart used the proverb Francesco Serdonati included it in a large collection of Italian proverbs that has remained unpublished until the present day. Fortunately, however, Charles Speroni has excerpted and published Serdonati's Wellerisms from the manuscript. Among them we find three pertinent versions: (1) "Staremo a vedere disse il cieco"; (2) "Come disse Lucca cieco: Lo vorrei vedere"; (3) "Come disse Nanni cieco: Vedere."[5] Speroni cites various Italian parallels to these texts and notes that an English version, "To say as Lucca the blindman said, viz., I would fain see that" (1666 Tilley), is a translation of the second. The saying seems to have been associated with "Di veduta disse il cieco,"[6] which occurs in various forms, some of which name the speaker but do not declare him to be blind. Speroni adds a citation of a modern collection, indicating that the saying is still current in Italy. F. Sánchez y Escribano cites two Spanish examples, but his authorities give no references to their sources.[7] I add Cervantes' use of the saying in Don Quixote, Vol. I, Bk. iv, ch. 23. which reads in Thomas Shelton's translation of 1612: "As one blind man said to another, let's behold ourselves."[8] On turning northward, we find three examples cited in Kruyskamp's charming collection of Dutch Wellerisms: (I) "'Au revoir,' said the blind man (Tot weerziens, sei de blinde)"; (2) "'That I should indeed like to see sometime,' said Maai, and she was blind (Dat zou ik wel eens willen zien, zei Maai, en se was blind)"; and (3) "'I like to see fish,' said the cat, and ate them up, being blind (Ik mag gaarne visch zien, zei de kat, en zij at se blindelings op)."[9] Evald Tang Kristensen has noted a Danish instance, "One must see with one's own eyes, said the blind man (Man må se med sine egne öjne, sagde den blinde mand)" and some curious parallels mentioning animals like Kruyskamp's third version.[10] From the province of Halland in southern Sweden Fredrik Ström gives an instance containing a proper name, "'Can you see?,' said blind Sarah (Kan du se, sa Blinna-Sara).''[11] And finally, a number of parallels mentioning animals as the speakers have been published from the collections of the Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland.[12]


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.




Wellerisms Involving Mention of a Wooden Leg

I see, said the blind man with a shake of his wooden leg, that the price of lumber has gone up.
I see, said the blind man as he peeped through the hole in grandpa's wooden leg (H.42).
I see, said the blind man as he spit through the knothole in his wooden leg (H. 45).
In one California version the speaker is identified in a special way for an obvious reason: "'Sí, sí,' said the blind Mexican."

Dean Halpert, who has given me much aid and encouragement, is making a study of the texts with special regard to their possible connection with a story of a blind man who saw a rabbit and a naked man who picked it up and put it in his pocket.[19] We shall have no occasion to anticipate his work, for it is sufficient here to stress the obvious evidences for oral transmission in these texts. As in many modern Wellerisms, puns have come to play a large share in the wit of these texts. It will be noticed that the simple notion of quoting a blind man's reference to seeing has seemed insufficient and has called for enlargement by referring to a characteristic but quite irrelevant act. The figure of the blind man has, furthermore, suggested mention of deaf and dumb persons and even a deaf dog. And finally, our Wellerism probably shows contamination with another and quite unrelated Wellerism, "'Aha,' she cried and waved her wooden leg." A more detailed analysis of these modern versions is unnecessary. They imply the existence of a flourishing oral tradition.

We can now summarize what we have learned. The record of the early use of the Wellerism is surprisingly generous. The six examples from the two centuries between 1533 and 1738 are, with the probable exception of the last, independent witnesses to oral tradition. Dean Swift may in 1738 have found the Wellerism referring to blind Hugh in Ray's collection of 1678, from which he had taken a great deal. Mrs. Mackie L. Jarrel's comment on his procedure is instructive. She says, "The strongest critical conviction which emerges from surveying Swift's proverbs is this: Polite Conversation is the work of a man of letters, a frequenter of libraries."[20]

From its first occurrence to the middle of the eighteenth century our Wellerism was characteristically known in a form that identified the speaker by a proper name. Whether this speaker was actually an historical person must remain uncertain, but we have in any case a tradition that is clearly conceived in concrete terms. A relic of these definite allusions to the speaker survives in Alexander Hislop's Scottish version, "'I would rather see than hear tell o't,' as blind Pete said,''[21] but this form of the Wellerism became extinct in the nineteenth century and references to "the blind man" who is often identified or described by adverbial and adjectival clauses, are preferred. Some of the changes appear to be wholly whimsical and others may be the products of associative thinking.


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.



Insignificant as the details of the history of our Wellerism may have seemed to be, the better knowledge of tradition and its ways of working that we gain from them throws light into a darkness that we shall never completely illuminate.



*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 106-114

  1. G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, 1929), p. 55, No. 18; V. S. Lean, Collectanea (4 v. in 5, Bristol, 1902-1904), II, 747; W. G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2d ed. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948), p. 70; Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York, [1948]), p. 198:6; M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), G 84; B. J. Whiting, Proverbs in the Earlier English Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1938), p. 177. Except for Smith and Heseltine, which I shall cite as Oxford, these collections will be cited by the authors' names.

  2. For general discussions of the Wellerism see my Proverb (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), pp. 200-220; Gustav Cederschiö1d, Om ordstäv och andra ämnen (Lund, [1923]), pp. 5-33; Fredrik Ström, Svenska ordstäv (Stockholm, [1939], pp. 5-39; C. Kruyskamp, Apologische spreekwoorden ('s Gravenhage, 1947), pp. 1-14.

  3. See the chapter "Von der Finsternuss" (Neudrucke deutscher Literaturwerke des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, 2 [Halle, 1876], p. 4).

  4. [E. Hoefer], Wie das Volk spricht (8th ed., Stuttgart, 1876), p. 31, No. 311. More precise references will be found in K. F. W. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon (5 v., Leipzig, 1867-1880), IV, 501, Nos. 11-13, 508, No. 176, and cf. p. 502, No. 48, and p. 508, No. 175.

  5. The Italian Wellerism to the End of the Seventeenth Century, Folklore Studies, 1 (Berkeley, 1953), pp. 23-24, No. 67. He had previously quoted these texts in "Wellerismi tolti dai proverbi inediti di Francesco Serdonati," Folklore (Naples), IV (1949), 10.

  6. See Speroni, p. 24, No. 70 and cross-references.

  7. "Dialogismos paremiológicos castellanos", Revista de filologia española, XXIII (1936), 289, No. 135. The first reference is to F. Rodríguez Marín, Más de 21,000 refranes castellanos (Madrid, 1926), p. 506 (Veremos, dijo el ciego, y nunca vió) and the second is, to Gabriel Correas, Vocabulario de refranes y frases proverbiales . . . (2nd ed., Madrid, 1924), p. 503 (Verémonos, y eran dos ciegos, Veremos, dijo el ciego).

  8. Quoted from Stevenson, p. 200:4.

  9. Pp. 4 and 85, Nos. 649, 652.

  10. Danske ordsprog og mundheld (Copenhagen, 1890), p. 458, No. 1034. Note also Nos. 1035 and 1036, which are similar, and four references (pp. 462-463, Nos. 1125-1128) to remarks addressed to a blind animal. The last and longest of these may be translated thus: "'You can see for yourseff,' said the man to the blind cow. He wanted to make it think that he was giving it oats, but it was only straw." (The word that I have translated "cow" is common gender and may also mean "ox".) P. 225.

  11. P. 225.

  12. Väinö Solstrand, Ordstäv, Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, Skrifter, 172 (Finlands svenska folkdiktning, 3, Helsingfors, 1923), p. 269 (about a score of versions).

  13. "Some Wellerisms from Kentucky and Tennessee," Journal of American Folklore, LXIX (1956), 115-122.

  14. See also Ruth Odell, "Nebraska Smart Sayings," Southern Folklore Quarterly, XII (1948), 191, No. 4.

  15. Cited from C. G. Loomis, "Traditional American Word Play: Wellerisms or Yankeeisms," Western Folklore, VIII (1949), 18. This quotation is dated 1860.

  16. See Halpert, pp. 121-122, citing a text printed in 1933.

  17. See also Margaret M. Kimmerle, "A Method of Collecting and Classifying Folk Sayings," Western Folklore, VI (1947), 357 (hammer and saw). Four versions with "hammer and saw" have been reported from California, and the version with "chisel and saw" is from California.

  18. The version "'I see,' says the blind man. 'You lie,' says the beggar" (H. 31) may be corrupt.

  19. J Bolte and G. Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm (5 v., Leipzig, 1913-1932), III, 115-119, will supply references to parallels.

  20. "The Proverbs in Swift's 'Polite Conversation,"' The Huntington Library Quarterly, XX (1956), 15-38. For the sentence quoted see p. 38.

  21. The Proverbs of Scotland (Glasgow, 1862), p. 128 (3d ed., Edinburgh, 1868), p. 195.

  22. Några utbyggda ordstäv," Folkminnen och folktankar, XII (1925), No. 2, pp. 27-38.

  23. Cited in Taylor, p. 212.

  24. Wiesbaden, 1956.

  25. Kritisches zur vergleichenden Märchenforschung," Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, XXV (1915), 154-166. The passage paraphrased below will be found on p. 160.

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