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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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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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