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On Whether Weather 'Proverbs' are Proverbs


On Whether Weather 'Proverbs' are Proverbs

Traditional sayings about the weather, wise or otherwise, have commonly but wrongly been considered proverbs by folklorists for more than a century. A host of titles attests to the purported existence of weather proverbs. Reinsberg-Düringsfeld published Das Wetter im Sprichwort in 1864; Richard Inwards, Weather Lore: A Collection of Proverbs, Sayings and Rules Concerning the Weather appeared in 1869; and Rev. Charles Swaison, A Handbook of Weather Folk-Lore: Being A Collection of Proverbial Sayings in Various Languages Relating to the Weather in 1873. Other sources include C. W. Empson, "Weather Proverbs and Sayings Not Contained in Inwards' or Swainson's Books," Folklore Record 4 (1881), 126-132; Alexis Yermoloff's comprehensive Die landwirtschaftliche Volksweisheit in Sprichwörtern, Redensarten und Wetterregeln (1905); and William J. Humphreys, Weather Proverbs and Paradoxes (1923).

Standard surveys of the proverb genre include mention of so-called weather proverbs. F. Edward Hulme concluded his Proverb Lore (1902) with a discussion of weather proverbs (pp. 264-269); Archer Taylor devotes a substantial section of The Proverb (1931) to weather proverbs (pp. 109-121); Röhrich and Mieder in Sprichwort (1977) list "Wettersprichwort (Bauern-regel)" as their first example of special forms of proverbs (pp. 7-10). Articles on weather proverbs have even appeared in Proverbium, e.g., Nai-tung Ting, "Chinese Weather Proverbs," Proverbium 18 (1972), 649-655 which would suggest at least tacit acceptance of this subgeneric category. Wolfgang Mieder's superb International Proverb Scholarship (1982) contains more than forty references to collections or discussions of weather proverbs.

From this admittedly cursory bibliographical survey, one can safely surmise that 'weather proverbs' constitute a legitimate subtype of the proverb genre and further that the study of them falls appropriately under the rubric of paremiology. I believe this is a generic error and that what are commonly called weather proverbs are nothing more than superstitions. What has tended to confuse folklorists is that whereas superstitions are more often than not free phrase, weather superstitions frequently occur in rhymed fixed-phrase form. In other words, they are superstitions with the textural features of proverbs (and riddles). It is likely that these textural features are present for mnemonic purposes. It is easier to remember a fact if it is couched in rhyme. The point, however, is that a rhymed superstition is still a superstition, not a proverb.

Let us take a representative instance. There is a venerable folk belief that a red sky in the evening signals fair weather to follow while a red sky in the morning predicts bad weather. Two distinct 'proverbs' based on this belief are to be found in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, Third Edition (1970). They are: Sky red in the morning is a sailor's (shepherd's) warning; sky red at night is the sailor's (shepherd's) delight. Evening red and morning grey help the traveller on his way; evening grey and morning red bring down rain upon his head.

This is an old tradition going back as many have observed to a New Testament version (Matthew 16:2-3): "When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering." The Biblical text provides a useful terminus ante quem for this belief which is one of the numerous weather sayings which has been tested by meteorologists and found to be relatively accurate.1

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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 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

What this means is that there are numerous texts included in the Dictionary of English Proverbs, and no doubt other standard collections of proverbs as well, which do not belong to the proverb genre at all. For example, in England, in the spring of 1983, I collected a number of versions of "One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, four for a boy" which is allegedly recited upon sighting one or more magpies. A longer form is found in the Dictionary of English Proverbs which begins "One (magpie) for sorrow; two for mirth; three for a wedding: four for a birth..." A female informant explained to me that inasmuch as magpies tended to cluster in pairs, the rhyme had sexist overtones -- boys likely than girsl (three magpies). The very structure of the rhyme would tend to support such an assertion to the extent that sorrow and girls are aligned in contrast to joys and boys. Whatever the chauvinist implications of the text may be, it is clearly a form of divination. Hence it belongs to the genre of superstition (where there are many signs of whether a future baby will be a boy or a girl). The fact that it is in rhyme does not make it any the less a sign superstition. It is not a proverb.

With similar reasoning, I would argue that most of what proverb scholars have referred to as 'medical proverbs', e.g., An apple a day keeps the doctor away,6 are simply rhymed folk medical superstitions. If A, then B. If one eats an apple daily, one will be healthy. Finally, I do not really believe that the folk consider weather and medical rules as proverbs. It is rather the folklorists who have wrongly constructed such erroneous classificatory categories. To the original question raised: Are weather proverbs proverbs? I would say emphatically "No!"


Previously published in Proverbium 1 (1984), pp. 39-46.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

1 See, for example, Spencer Russell, "A Red Sky at Night..." Meteorological Magazine, 61 (1926), 15-17, and Paul J. Marriott, Red Sky at Night, Shepherd's Delight? Weather Lore of the English Countryside (Oxford: Sheba Books, 1981), pp. 309-311. For representative discussions of the scientific merit of such weather signs, see Georges Tibau, "Zestig Vlaamse weerspreuken onder de loep van de statistiek," Volkskunde 78 (1977), 33-59; and M. G. Wurtele, "Some Thoughts on Weather Lore," Folklore 82 (1971), 292-303.

2 See R.-O Frick, "Le peuple et la prévision du temps," Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 26 (1926), 1-21, 89-100, 171-188, 254-279. For the structural formula, see pp. 5-6. See also Eleanor Anne Forster, The Proverb and Superstition Defined. Diss. University of Pennsylvania, 1968.

3 For a discussion of the definition of sign superstitions, see Alan Dundes, "Brown County Superstitions," Midwest Folklore, 11 (1961), 25-56 (see esp. pp. 28-31). The theoretical portion of this essay was reprinted in Alan Dundes, Analytic Essays in Folklore (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), pp. 88-94.

4 Ronald Baker makes a similar case in "'Hogs Are Playing with Sticks -- Bound to Be Bad Weather': Folk Belief or Proverb?" Midwestern Journal of Language and Folklore, 1 (1975): 65-67; reprinted in Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), pp. 199-202.

5 Marriott, op. cit., p. 111, 159, claims the saying is true "because at the end of March and during April they arrive in ones and twos, only coming in force from mid to late April."

6 This and other examples of medical 'proverbs' may be found in Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), pp. 121-129.

Alan Dundes
Department of Anthropology
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, California 94720


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