THE definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the
undertaking; and should we fortunately combine in a single
definition all the essential elements and give each the
proper emphasis, we should not even then have a touchstone.
An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is
proverbial and that one is not. Hence no definition will
enable us to identify positively a sentence as proverbial.
Those who do not speak a language can never recognize all
its proverbs, and similarly much that is truly proverbial
escapes us in Elizabethan and older English. Let us be
content with recognizing that a proverb is a saying current
among the folk. At least so much of a definition is
indisputable, and we shall see and weigh the significance of
other elements later.
The origins of the proverb have been little studied. We
can only rarely see a proverb actually in the making, and
any beliefs we have regarding origins must justify
themselves as evident or at least plausible. Proverbs are
invented in several ways: some are simple apothegms and
platitudes elevated to proverbial dignity, others arise from
the symbolic or metaphoric use of an incident, still others
imitate already existing proverbs, and some owe their
existence to the condensing of a story or fable. It is
convenient to distinguish as "learned" proverbs those with a
long literary history. This literary history may begin in
some apt Biblical or classical phrase, or it may go back to
a more recent source. Such "learned" proverbs differ,
however, in only this regard from other proverbs. Whatever
the later history may be, the manner of ultimate invention
of all proverbs, "learned" or "popular," falls under one or
another of the preceding heads.
It is not proper to make any distinction in the treatment
of "learned" and "popular" proverbs. The same problems exist
for all proverbs with the obvious limitation that, in
certain cases, historical studies are greatly restricted by
the accidents of preservation. We can ordinarily trace the
"learned" proverb down a long line of literary tradition,
from the classics or the Bible through the Middle Ages to
the present, while we may not be so fortunate with every
"popular" proverb. For example, Know thyself may very
well have been a proverb long before it was attributed to
any of the seven wise men or was inscribed on the walls of
the temple of Delphic Apollo. Juvenal was nearer the truth
when he said it came from Heaven: "E caelo descendit "
(Sat., xi, 27). Yet so far as modern life is
concerned, the phrase owes its vitality to centuries of
bookish tradition. St. Jerome termed Don't look a gift
horse in the mouth a common proverb, when he used it to
refer to certain writings which he had regarded as free will
offerings and which critics had found fault with: "Noli (ut
vulgare est proverbium) equi dentes inspicere donati." We
cannot hope to discover whether the modern proverb owes its
vitality to St. Jerome or to the vernacular tradition on
which he was drawing. St. Jerome also took The wearer
best knows where the shoe wrings him from Plutarch, but
we may conjecture that this proverb, too, was first current
on the lips of the folk. Obviously the distinction between
"learned" and "popular" is meaningless and is concerned
merely with the accidents of history.
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Often some simple apothegm is repeated so many times that
it gains proverbial currency: Live and learn; Mistakes
will happen; Them as has gets; Enough is enough; No fool
like an old fool; Haste makes waste; Business is business;
What's done's done. Characteristic of such proverbs is
the absence of metaphor. They consist merely of a bald
assertion which is recognized as proverbial only because we
have heard it often and because it can be applied to many
different situations. It is ordinarily difficult, if not
impossible, to determine the age of such proverbial truisms.
The simple truths of life have been noted in every age, and
it must not surprise us that one such truth has a long
recorded history while another has none. It is only chance,
for example, that There is a time for everything has
a long history in English,--Shakespeare used it in the Comedy of Errors, ii, 2: "There's a time for all
things,"--and it is even in the Bible: "To every thing there
is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven"
(Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub
caelo, Eccles. iii, I), while Mistakes will
happen or If you want a thing well done, do it
yourself have, on the contrary, no history at all.
New proverbs have often been made on old models. Certain
frames lend themselves readily to the insertion of entirely
new ideas. Thus the contrast in Young . . ., old . . . in such a proverb as Young saint, old devil yields a model for Junge Bettschwester, alte Betschwester. A
methodical comparison would probably reveal the proverb
which gave the original impulse to the formation of the
others; but no one has ever undertaken a study of this sort.
Martha Lenschau conceives the development as follows: Young angel, old devil (Jung Engel, alt Teufel,
thirteenth century); i.Young knights, old beggars
(Junge Ritter, alte Bettler, sixteenth century); Young soldiers,
old beggars (Junge Soldaten, alte Bettler, seventeenth
century). The first form made no distinction for sex. When
the substitution of "knight" or "soldier" made the
distinction, a by-form for women was invented on the same
model: Junge Hure, alt Kupplerin appears to have been
the first of such by-forms, although Jung Hure, alt
Wettermacherin must also be ancient, since the notion
involved in "Wettermacherin" reaches far back. The most
recent development is probably the Low German Young
gamblers, old beggars (Junge Späler, ole Bedler),
and the corruption Young musicians, old beggars (Junge Musikanten, alde Beddellüde), which arises from
the misunderstanding of "Späler," 'players' (i. e.
gamblers), as 'players of music' and the later substitution
of a synonym.
It is not always easy to recognize or identify the
earliest form which provided the model for later
developments; and until several proverbs have been minutely
examined from this point of view and our methods of study
have been improved, it is hard to say which arguments are
safe to use and which are unsafe. In all probability, we may
trust to the general principles which have been worked out
for märchen, i. e. those employed in the so-called
Finnish or historico-geographical method. The relative age
and distribution of the various forms of a proverb will
throw much light on the development. In the present
instance, for example, we might regard the old and widely
known Jung gewohnt, alt getan ('What one is
accustomed to in youth, one does in old age') as a possible
model, even of the whole group. Certainly it has given us Jung gefreut, alt gereut (' Rejoiced in youth,
repented in age') and as a secondary development: Jung
gefreit, alt gereut ('Married in youth, repented in
age'). Since, however, Young saint, old devil is even
older and more widely known, I am inclined to consider it
the parent of all later forms. Often other arguments than
age and wide currency may be brought into court. Usually, a
dialectal variation which is essential to a particular form
and which limits it to a narrow area is secondary in origin,
e. g. Jung gefreit, alt geklait ('Wed in youth,
bewailed in old age') can have arisen only in a region where
'geklagt' is pronounced "geklait." So, too, Jung gefreit,
alt gereut originated in a region--somewhat larger, to
be sure, than the one just mentioned--where the dialectal
pronounciation of "gereut" made the rhyme tolerable.
A few more illustrations of the creation of new proverbs
on the model of old ones will suffice. A familiar German
proverbial type employs the notion that the essential
qualities of an object show themselves the very beginning,
e. g. Was ein Häkchen werden soll, krümmt sich
beizeiten (' Whatever is to be a hook, bends early').
English representatives of this type are rare, but we may
cite Timely crooks that tree that will be a cammock (i. e. 'gambrel,' a bent piece of wood used by butchers to
hang carcasses on) and It pricketh betimes that shall be
a sharp thorn. A German derivative of the type is Was
ein Nessel werden soll, brennt beizeiten ('Whatever is
to be a nettle, burns early'). This proverb has found rather
wide currency. Although the evidence is not all in, the type
or at least its ready employment in new proverbs is German.
The form characteristic of Es sind nicht alle Jäger
die das Horn blasen ('They are not all hunters who blow
horns'), a form which appears to have been first recorded by
Varro ('Non omnes, qui habent citharam, sunt citharoedi'),
enjoyed a remarkable popularity in mediaeval Germany and
gave rise to many new proverbs, e. g. They are not all
cooks who carry long knives (Es sind nicht alle
Köche, die lange Messer tragen); They are not all
friends who laugh with you (Zijn niet alle vrienden, die
hem toelachen). Outside of Germany and countries allied
culturally, the form appears to have had no notable success,
except in All is not gold that glitters, which refers
to a thing and not a person. Seiler thinks that" Many are
called, but few are chosen" (Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci
vero electi, Matt. xx, 16; xxii, 14) was the ultimate
model for these proverbs, but the similarity is one of
thought and not of form. Possibly one could imagine a class
based on simple balance and contrast, of which the young-old type and the called-chosen type
might both be derivatives, but the fundamental differences
in syntactical structure speak strongly against a
development of this sort. Young saint, old devil is
an old proverbial form which has no verb; Many are
called, but few are chosen consists of balanced,
antithetical sentences; All is not gold that glitters uses a subordinate clause. The syntactical differences are
so great that an influence from one of these types on
another does not seem likely.
Of course there have been serious accidents occasionally
in the passage from Latin into the modern languages, and,
furthermore, various modern proverbs have been regarded as
descendants of Latin phrases, although the context shows
clearly enough that the similarity is merely verbal and does
not involve the transmission of ideas. Virgil's "A chill
snake, lads, lurks in the grass" (Frigidus, o pueri, latet
anguis in herba, Ecl., iii, 93) is not the source of
the idea in our proverb A snake in the grass. The
saying When the horse is stolen, lock the barn door cannot rest on a misunderstanding of Juvenal's words: "If in
all the world you cannot show me so abominable a crime, I
hold my peace; I will not forbid you to smite your breast
with your fists, or to pummel your face with open palm,
seeing that after so great a loss you must close your doors,
and that a household bewails the loss of money with louder
lamentations than death" (Sat., iii, 126 ff.). The
reference concerns the Roman custom of closing doors as a
sign of mourning. It is wisest not to think of any
connection between Juvenal and the proverb and to regard the
proverb as a peasant's invention and as comparable to such
sayings as To cover the well after the child is
drowned. We may observe in passing that the
substitutions which occur in the variants are quite in the
manner of oral tradition: for "horse" we have "cow" or
"cattle" and for "lock" we have "repair." But further
illustration of such substitutions is unnecessary: proverbs
live the same sort of life in tradition, whatever their past
*Reprinted from Archer Taylor The
Proverb and An Index to "The Proverb", Sprichwörterforschung Band 6, Herausgegeben von
Wolfgang Mieder, Peter Lang, Bern-Frankfurt am Main-New
York, 1985, pp. 3-65
Heusler, Zeitschrift des Vereins
für Volkskunde, XXV (1915), 11o, No. 1.
The same, 113, No. 27.
The same, 113, No. 4.
An old maxim. Compare Caute, si
non caste. In France, our soldiers paraphrased it as If you can't be good, be sanitary.
Possibly we can see a connection with Laissez faire à George, il est homme
d'âge, a historical proverb. We are told that
Louis XII expressed his confidence in his minister,
George d'Amboise, in these words. The traditional
explanation in America is based on "George" as a name
used in addressing Pullman porters
Cf. "Argens fait le jeu" (Baudoin
de Sebourc, xxiv, 443).
Primitive Culture, I. ch. iii,
See the bibliography in Bonser, Proverb Literature (London, 1930), p. 434, Nos.
Sea proverbs have been collected for
their own sake. Perhaps the first work which makes
special mention of such proverbs is a Dutch dictionary of
sea terms (W. A. Winschoten, Seeman [Leiden,
1681]). F. A. Stoett extracts some curious
superstitions and words from this work; see "W. A.
Winschoten's Seeman," De Nieuwe Taalgids, XIII
(1919), 97-106. For Dutch sea proverbs see van Dam van
Isselt, Nederlandsche Muzen-Almanak (1838), pp.
135-139, and particularly Sprenger van Eijk
(Handleiding tot de Kennis van onze Vaderlandsche
Spreekwoorden . . . van de Scheepvaart en het
Scheepsleven Ontleend [Rotterdam 1835-36]).
D. H. van der Meer (Verzameling van Stukken
betreffende de Friesche Geschiedenis, etc.
[Franeker, n.d.], I, 121-133) notes some Frisian
sea proverbs. Sébillot (Légendes,
Croyances, et Superstitions de la Mer [Paris,
1886-87]) and Corbière ("Des Proverbes
Nautiques," Revue de Rouen et de la Normandie, Vol. XIII ) collect French examples.
English and German collections have been made by Cowan
(A Dictionary of the Proverbs and Proverbial
Expressions Relating to the Sea [Greenesburgh,
Pennsylvania, 1894]), Lypkes
(Seemannssprüche [Berlin, 1900]), and
in the anonymous Sea Words and Phrases along the
Suffolk Coast (Lowestoft, 1869-70), a reprinting of
articles from the East Anglian Notes and Queries, January, 1869 and January, 1870.
See the bibliography in Bonser, Proverb Literature (London, 1930), pp. 447-448,
See Otto, Die Sprichwörter
und Sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer (Leipzig, 1890), p. xxv; Bolte and Polívka, Anmerkungun zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen, IV (1930) , 116 n. ll, 365; "Fabel" in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie; Crusius,
"Märchenreminszenzen im Antiken Sprichwort," Verhandlungen d. 40. i.Philologenversammlung zu Görlitz (1890); L.
Friedländer, Bilder aus der Römischen
Sittengeschichte, I (5th ed., 1881), 469 ff., I (6th
ed.,1888), 522 ff.; Büchmann, Geflügelte
Worte (Berlin, 1920), pp. 71-86; Seiler, Lehnsprichwort, I, 22 f., 83 f.; Jente,
"Märchen im Sprichwort," Handbuch des Deutschen
Märchens (forthcoming). The article by Kasumovic
(Rad of the Jugoslav Academy, CXCI, 195), which is
cited in Zeitschrift des Vereins für
Volkskunde, XXIII (1913), 317, has not been
accessible to me.
Nahum iii, 12. Quitard regards
this passage as source; see p. 37. Compare Büchmann
as above, p. 84.
Wesselski, Erlesenes (Gesellschaft Deutscher Bücherfreunde in
Böhmen, VIII, Prague, 1928), p. 98.
For these and other examples see
Voigt, Zeitschrift für Deutsches Altertum, XXIII (1879), 294 (No. 30a), 305 (No. 11), 287
(No. 14), 301 (No. 58), 304 (No. 8).
Sprichwörter, p. xxv,
where additional examples are given. He also believes
that They have put a saddle on the ox; it is no task
for me (Clitellae bovi sunt impositae plane, non est
nostrum onus) is an allusion to a fable; cf. p. 262 and Archiv für Lateinische Lexikographie, VI
(1889), 9 n. 1.
See K. Euling, Das Priamel bis
Hans Rosenplüt (Germanistische Abhandlungen, No.
25), p. 179 n. 3; Strack, Hessische Blätter
für Volkskunde, II (1903), 69, 174; Die
Österreich-Ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild (Vienna, 1891), VIII (Kärnten und Krain), 151; A.
Kopp, Ein Sträusschen Liebesblüten im Garten
Deutscher Volksdichtung Gepflückt (Lelpzig,
1902),No. 19. See also the interesting remarks in the
preface to D. Hyde, Songs of Connacht (Dublin,
n.d.). Apparently a literary tradition lies behind the
metrical form of certain Irish proverbs.
Sprichwörter-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1867-80), s.
v. Apfel, 6; Kopp, as above; Strack, as above, II,
Estudios sobre Literatura
Popular (Biblioteca de las Tradiciones Populares,
Vol. V [Sevilla, 1884]), pp. 67-71, "Coplas
sentenciosas," pp. 75-79, "Antinomia entre un refran y
See, for example, Krohn, "Die
Entwicklung eines Sprichwortes zum Lyrischen Liede," Mélanges en l'Honneur de Vaclav Tille (Prague, 1929), pp. 109-112.
See the bibliography of collections
of familiar quotations in Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Leipzig, 1912), p. xxvi.
The more important collections are Arlaud, Bevingede
Ord (Copenhagen, 1878); Bartlett, Familiar
Quotations (Boston, 1924); Benham, Book of
Quotations, Proverbs, and Household Words (London,
1924); Alexandre, Musée de la Conversation (Paris, 1902); Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte;
der Citatenschatz des Deutschen Volkes (Leipzig,
1864, 1920); Nehry, Citatenschatz, Geflügelte
Worte, Sprichwörter und Sentenzen (Leipzig,
1889); Winter, Unbeflügelte Worte (Augsburg,
1888); Fumagalli, Chi l'ha detto? Repertorio Metodico
e Ragionato di 1575 Citazioni e Frasi di Origine
Letteraria (Milan, 1895); Otto, Die
Sprichwörter und Sprichwörtlichen Redensarten
der Römer (Leipzig, 1890); Curti, Schweizer
Geflügelte Worte (Zurich, 1896); Ahnfelt, Bevingade Ord (Stockholm, 1879).
Altgermanische Dichtung (Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, Wildpark-Potsdam,
1923), p. 68, ¤ 61.
Ragnarssaga Lodbroka, 15; Kock
and Petersen, Ostnordiska och Latinska
Medeltidsordspråk (Copenhagen, 1889-94), II,
194; Bugge, Archiv för Nordisk Filologi, X
Wesselski, Angelo Polizianos
Tagebuch (Leipzig, 1929), p. 45, No. 96.
Wesselski, Angelo Polizianos
Tagebuch (Leipzig, 1929), p. 45, No. 96.
This may mean a pitchfork or a fork
used to punish slaves.
Compare the examples of Latin
quotations which verge on proverbs: Otto, Sprichwörter, p. xxii; Otto, Die
Geflügelten Worte bei den Römern (Breslau,
1890). See in general the many handbooks of familiar
quotations, of which the most useful and most accurate is
Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Berlin,
Worte (Leipzig, 1920), p. 456.
See Taylor, "The Death of Orvar
Oddr," Modern Philology, XIX (1921),
See in general Otto, p. xxii.
Since the Greek proverb employs the
imperative, Erasmus is very likely justified in
correcting the Latin to read "Let the die be cast" (Alea
Crusius makes some helpful remarks on
this problem in his review of Otto, Wochenschrift
für Klassische Philologie, VIII (1891), coll.
428-429. See also Otto, pp. xviii-xix.
See Otto, pp. xviii-xix; Crusius, as
above, col. 426.
"Die Beziehungen zwischen Slaven und
Griechen in ihren Sprichwörtern," Archiv für
Slavische Philologie, XXX (1909), 1-47,
"'Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde,"' Publications Modern Language Association, XLII
(1927), 865-872, see some additional material in Stoett, Nederlandsche Spreekwoorden (Zutphen, 1924-25), s. v. Morgenstond.
The special character of Biblical
proverbs makes it possible to use collections and studies
in any language. The more important reference works for
such proverbs are found in Dutch and German: Kat, Bijbelsche Uitdrukkingen en Spreekwijzen in onze
Taal (Zutphen, 1926); Laurillard, Bijbel en
Volkstaal (Amsterdam, 1875; 2d ed., Rotterdam 1901),
wlth the comments by Harrebomée, Bedenkingen op
het Prijsschrift van Dr. E. Laurillard (Gorinchem,
1877), Sprenger van Eijk, Handleiding tot de Kennis
van onze Vaderlandsche Spreekwoorden (Rotterdam,
1835-41); Zeeman, Nederlandsche Spreekwoorden . . .
aan den Bijbel Ontleend (Dordrecht, 1877, 1888); and
Schulze, Die Biblischen Sprichwörter der
Deutschen Sprache (Göttingen, 1860);
Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Berlin,
1920), pp. 1-70. Biblical quotations and allusions in Old
and Middle English literature are collected by A. S. Cook
(Biblical Quotations in Old English Prose Writers [New York 1898-1903]) and Mary W. Smyth
(Biblical Quotations in Old English before 1350 [New York, 1911]); although these books are not
primarily concerned wlth proverbial materials, they give
an idea of the way in which the Bible was used and how
Biblical proverbs may have arisen. Marvin (Curiosities
in Proverbs [New York, 1916]) gives some
miscellaneous and unsystematic notes on English Biblical
"Ex abundantia . . . loquitur. Wenn
ich den Eseln sol folgen, die werden mir die buchstaben
furlegen, und also dolmetzschen: Auss dem überflus
des hertzen redet der mund. Sage mir, Ist das deutsch
geredet?"--Vom Dolmetschen (Weimar ed., XXX, ii,
Cited by D. Murray, Lawyers'
Merriments (Glasgow, 1912), p. 49; C. C. Nopitsch, Die Literatur der Sprichwörter (Nuremberg,
1833), p. 58; Wander, Deutsches
Sprichwörter-Lexicon, s. v. Dieb,