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This study deals primarily with the proverb "Neither fish nor flesh"[1] and its variations, but also serves the larger purpose of illustrating by a concrete example some typical problems in folklore studies. It is convenient to use a proverb for this purpose because the texts used in the discussion are brief and can be quoted in full and because they can be easily gathered in generous quantity. We must first determine the form or forms of the proverb, their relative ages and their distribution. When we have accomplished these tasks we can draw some tentative inferences. There is always the chance that a later comer may point out an overlooked text that will raise doubts about our inferences but that is unavoidable. We shall comment on origins and try to explain the variations and finally arrive at a more or less satisfactory idea of the history of the development. The fundamental importance of dated and localized texts in such endeavors is obvious.

The first English version of our proverb is reported by Morris P. Tilley A Dictionary of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), F 319: "Wone [One] that is nether flesshe nor fisshe" and is dated 1528. He cites another instance from Gammer Gurton's Needle (1552, published 1575) and an enlarged version "Neither flesh nor fish nor good red herring" from 1621. To the last of these we shall return a little later. No one appears to have found more versions of the first form. They are independent witnesses to a tradition that enjoyed no great popularity and soon ceased to maintain itself. If we look abroad for parallels, the first we find is in the last edition of the Adagia made by Erasmus (d. 1534). Here we read: "Neque intus neque foris... simili figura dicunt hodie neque caro neque piscis, de homine qui sibi vivet, nec ullarum est partium."[2] Erasmus has used it to explain another saying ("Neither in nor out") that has much the same meaning, but he does not give a source for either. He often cited texts from popular speech and we can infer that he was familiar with it in Dutch. This association of the two texts is useful in identifying borrowings from the Adagia. There is no reason to see any connection between the Dutch and English texts and we can believe that they reflect early sixteenth-century tradition on the two sides of the North Sea. In the Low Countries the proverb had subsequendy a somewhat greater success than it had in England. Stoett reports Dutch instances from a novel of 1785, a modern miscellany, and a modern pedagogical journal. He adds a Frisian parallel and the French "Ni chair ni poisson," for which he gives no sources or dates. The long break in the record suggests that the modern instances may represent a borrowing of the French proverb rather than a continuing tradition. In 1639 Orlando Pescetti cited an Italian version (the first edition of 1603 not seen), but the reference includes "Neque intus neque foris" and is probably Erasmian in origin.[3]With this scanty evidence it is not possible to do much. We can perhaps infer that "Neither flesh nor fish" was the original form of the proverb and that only in French did it establish itself securely enough to remain the standard form. Probably euphony was the determining factor. It is difficult to say how far the French form influenced tradition in other countries.

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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.

Similar contrasts employing other terms are both old and numerous. We may begin with the Biblical "thou are neither hot nor cold" (Rev.)

English: Neither here nor there; Neither the one nor the other; Neither this nor that; Neither head nor tail; Neither hawk nor buzzard; Without rhyme or reason.

Spanish: Ni chica ni limonada. Emilio Rodríguez Demorizi, Refranero dominicano (Rome, 1950), p. 194 adds the comment "Dice Alix en sus décimas Se acabo la carestia:

Los pobres no pueden ya
soportar cosa tan seria,
porque morir de miseria
no es chicha ni lomoná.

Examples can be easily gathered from collections by Correas and Francisco Rodríguez Marín.

Arabic: Como el avestruz, ni pájaro ni caballo (Demorizi).

Russian: Neither fish nor butter (A. V. Kunin, Anglo-russkii frazeologiceskii slovar', 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1954), p. 390, F 639).

More proverbs or proverbial phrases of this sort can no doubt be turned up, but these are enough to show that the contrast in "Neither fish nor flesh" is a widely used pattern. Since this involves familiarity with the church rule for ordinary days and fast days, it was probably originally expressed in Latin and then translated into vernacular forms that suited these languages. Some have insisted that it reflects religious controversy of the sixteenth century,[11] and this may be a correct interpretation of the lack of medieval texts. Controversy naturally increased general awareness of the contrast in religious practices. In England, but apparently less often in other countries, the contrast of fish and flesh caught popular fancy, and expansion and variation followed: "Neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring" is a whimsical enlargement. Much later, when the allusion to the church rule was no longer in everyone's mind, it became possible to say "Neither fish, flesh, nor fowl," in which "fowl" is from the theological point of view a meaningless duplication suggested by alliteration. It is hardly likely that there is a reference here to the three elements water, earth, and air, for this version does not occur before the middle of the nineteenth century. By that time the concept of the elements (fire obviously does not come into consideration) can hardly have influenced a traditional proverb. I see nothing to support an oral suggestion that there is here an allusion to characteristic foods of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.

The details we have studied throw light on the cultural history of the western world and show how what was once significant has declined in importance. Why this saying in its many forms should have been so much more popular in England than in other countries remains a puzzle. The folklorist will note the enormous value of dated and localized texts in interpretation and will call for a dozen more to clarify this history.


The foregoing discussion illustrates perhaps sufficiently well the proverb "Neither fish nor fowl" in western European tradition and the remarkable number and variety of its forms in English use. I cannot see why it has been so popular in England and America. As I have said, we can probably find its origin in Christian ritual and in further support of this explanation I add the Polish "Nie ryba, nie mieso" and the Russian "Ni ryba ni mjaso.''[12] Both mean "Neither fish nor flesh." They are eastern examples of the same widespread tradition. More interesting than these examples is the Finnish "Hänestä ei tiedä, onko hän kala vai lintu" (One does not know what kind of man he is, whether he is fish or bird).[13]

The parallel Estonian "Ei ole lindu ega kala" (He is neither a bird nor a fish / That is, he is a strange man) in oral tradition is to the same effect and indicates a common tradition. I do not readily see an explanation for it except the obvious fact that birds and fish are very different in every regard. The curious traditional Polish "Nie pies, nie wydra, / Cos w'rodzaju swidra" (Neither dog, nor otter, / Something like a bore [i.e., a drill]), suggests extending the search for parallels. I know nothing like it.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 122-128

  1. I use this form in the title and for general reference because it is short and is still in general use.
  1. Chil. IV, cent. v, n. 44. See also F. A. Stoett, Nederlandsche spreekwoorden..., 4th ed., 2 vols. (Zutphen, 1924, 1925), II, 425, No. 2415. I have used Adagia (Paris, 1579), col. 862.

  2. Cited from W. H. D. Suringar, Erasmus over nederlandsche spreekwoorden... (Utrecht, 1873), pp. 250--251, No. 139. This and many others of Suringar's citations include "Neque intus neque foris" and are obviously derived from the Adagia. Some give "Neque albus atque ater" as a parallel and thus betray that they also are book learning and not folk tradition. I have not learned from what book they have been taken.

  3. 'To make flesh of one and fish of the other" may be a derivative of the form first discussed or it may be a chance variation.

  4. See Die sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der deutschen Sprache, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1955), pp. 147--148. The passage cited from Fischart is a translation of a Dutch original.
  5. A. H. Holt, Phrase Origins (New York, [l934]), p. 274. This conjecture has been taken from E. C. Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

  6. See T. Vogel-Jørgensen, Bevingede ord, 4th ed. (Copenhagen, 1953), pp. 375--376.

  7. Although mention of "fowl" is lacking, this anomalous text of uncertain origin may be included here. Dixon gives it as an explanation and may have concocted it himself.

  8. Cited by Stoett; Vogel-Jørgensen; and with precise references in the Ordbog over det danske sprog, IV (Copenhagen, 1922), col. 1042; Ordbog över svenska språket, IX (Lund, 1928), cols. 1969--1970.

  9. C. E. Funk, A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions (New York, [1948]), p. 93.

  10. See K. F. W. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörterlexikon, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1867--1880), I, col. 1039, No. *263. His quotations require verification by comparisons with the sources and include nothing that seems to justify this labor.

  11. I owe this oral Polish text to the kindness of a friend. The Russian may be found in A. V. Kunin, Anglo-russkij frazeologicheskij slovar', 2d ed. (Moscow, 1952), p. 390 and in B. Tougan-Baranovskaia, Proverbes et dictons russes avec des équivalents français (Moscow, n. d.), p. 44, No. 389. According to the French idiom, the order of the parts is reversed in the French equivalent.

  12. Matti Sadeniemi, Nykysuomen sanakirja (Porvoo-Helsinki, 1954), III, 178. Elsewhere (II, 158) the author offers the slightly differing explanation, "what kind of man he is, trustworthy or untrustworthy, or something like that." The Estonian version is from oral tradition.

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