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


"Can the blind lead the blind?" (Luke 6:39; see also Matt. 15:14)[1] and the parallels to this question in either matter or form have been generally accepted as proverbial. We see in them instances of a somewhat unusual proverbial pattern that can be represented as X (a noun) . . . (a verb) X. This pattern is to be set apart from the tautological A bargain is a bargain[2] and the pattern we see in The great fish eat up the small (Oxford, p. 264) or Great thieves hang little ones (Oxford 265), in which contrasting adjectives claim attention and the repetition of the noun is understood but not expressed. The last pattern we also see in Bad money drives out good.[3] This is allied to the many Renaissance proverbs and sententious remarks like One deceit (nail) drives out another,[4] in which the verbal phrase "drives out" is characteristic. Morris P. Tilley gives English examples with deceit, fire, grief, love, nail, poison, and wedge and cites Erasmus for Latin examples--not all of them appear to be classical Latin--with amor, clavus, dolor, and ira. In order to put it on record I cite still another pattern represented by the oral Colorado saying It takes a mine to work a mine, but this has only a remote similarity.

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With the addition of a few texts that caught my eye while consulting authorities. I find the following instances of our pattern X--X in the Oxford Dictionary. More instances can be turned up, but the following list offers a reasonably satisfactory survey of the use of the pattern:

Art consists in concealing art.
Oxford 14; Stevenson 96:10. The Latin origin of this sententious remark is clear, but its date, origin, and history are uncertain. Its proverbial quality is doubtful.

Without danger we cannot get beyond danger.
Oxford 129; Stevenson 485:3, citing Publilius Syrus; Tilley D37.

Diamond cut diamond.
Oxford 144; Stevenson 50:12; Taylor and Whiting 101; Tilley D323. Only English instances are cited and none older than 1604. See also Notes and Queries, 11th Ser., 10 (1914) 227; 194 (1949) 126.

Dog does not eat dog.
Oxford 151; Stevenson 611:9, citing Varro and Juvenal; Taylor and Whiting 106.

Dog eat dog.
Stevenson 611:9; Taxlor and Whiting 101. A modern English derivative of the preceding.

Like breeds like.
Stevenson 1428:6, citing an instance in Tennyson's poems (1842).

Like cures like.
Oxford 368; Stevenson 1557:15; Taylor and Whiting 222. A translation of Similia similibus curantur, which appears to have been invented by S. C. F. Hahnemann about 1796. He attributed the idea to Hippocrates. Something similar is seen in Shakespeare King John (1596) III. i. 277 and falsehood falsehood cures.

Like loves like. A fabricated heading.
Oxford 368. See many sense- parallels in Stevenson 1431:2.

Like will to like.
Oxford 368--369; Stevenson 1431:2; Tilley L286. Here we may include Like seeks after like (Stevenson 1431:2, citing Empedocles); Like to like (Oxford 368; Stevenson 1430:1--1432:4; Tilley L283, L284). The collectors cite many instances of our pattern in their notes, especially those to the last proverb.

Like will to like, quoth the devil to the collier.
Oxford 369; Tilley L287. A derivative of the preceding.


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.



Let us turn now to the classical and patristic Latin examples of our pattern collected in A. Otto, Die Sprichwörter der Römer (Leipzig 1890).
I find there the following:


Canis caninam non est (p. 70 canis 9).
Tanquam clavo clavum eiciendum (85 clavus 2).
Fallacia Alia aliam trudit (131 fallacia).
Sic figulus figulo, faber fabro invidet (36 figulus).
Ne ad malum addas malum (207 malum 1).
Aliud ex alio malum (207 malum 2).
Manus manum lavat (210 manus 3).
Nihil ex nihilo (243 nihil 1).
Pares cum paribus facillime congregantur (264 par 1).
Par pro pari referto (264 par 3).
Senes est aequom senibus obsequi (264 par 1).
Similia similibus gaudent (264 par 1).

The list is brief and the comment can be brief. Two proverbs which do not repeat the noun--Fallacia Alia aliam trudit, Aliud ex alio malum--resemble structurally--and the first in matter--the English One deceit (nail) drives out another, and all (Latin and English) have parallels which do repeat the noun. The replacement of the noun by some form of "alius" may thus have a Latin original and have spread in English. More important than this minor development is the fact that Otto cites Greek parallels to all the proverbs in the list except Par pro pari referto, and the lack of a Greek parallel to this seems more likely to be accidental than significant. One can, I think, safely assert that our proverbial pattern is not native Latin usage. The Romans knew it as a rhetorical device: we have already noted Ars est celare artem and may add the Ovidian Mors morte pianda est (Metam. 8.483) and the Manilian Cascum duxisse cascam non mirabile, as cited by Varro (see Stevenson 198--199: 11),[6] although the last of these does not agree precisely with our pattern. The pattern might seem to have a Greek origin, and Stevenson cites (198--199: 11, 1965: 2, and 1968: 5) several examples that might confirm this opinion. Yet, the lack of an adequate dictionary of classical Greek proverbs makes it difficult to study such a stylistic question. Until Dr. Jürgen Werner gives us his promised collection, discussion of the matter may wait. It is enough to note that Stevenson cites instances of the pattern from Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Its use in Greek is both old and general.


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.



Let us not stop here. The Egyptian Take good heed to this matter: a blow struck brings a counter- blow in its train (Stevenson 1971: 6), which is credited to Kheti I, king of Egypt about 2500 B. C., shows the characteristic pattern. More than this, the proverbial quality of the king's advice is confirmed by Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1430, written two thousand years later. I am now on thin ice, but shall venture farther. Dr. Edmund I. Gordon prints the Sumerian proverb níg- mu níg àm- ku.[7] I know no Sumerian, but my eyes tell me that nig is repeated and the glossary tells me that àm- ku is a verb. In his translation That which is mine has made (other) things strange, Dr. Gordon eliminates the repetition of nig 'thing' to obtain intelligible English. But,--do we have here the oldest instance of our pattern? These combinations may be called guesses, but I would conjecture that this proverbial pattern is ancient, that it may have its origin in the Near East, that the ancient Greeks borrowed it from their neighbors, and that classical tradition and the New Testament gave it to the Western world.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 115-121

  1. See G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London 1929) 56; William G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2d ed., Oxford 1948) 51; Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Scventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor 1950) B 452; B. J. Whiting, "Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings from Scottish Writings before 1600", Mediaeval Studies II (1949) 140; Archer Taylor and B. J. Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases 1820--1880 (Cambridge, Mass. 1958) 33; Burton E. Stevenson The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York 1948) 198--I99:II. These will be subsequently cited by the authors' names; the Oxford Dictionary will be cited as Oxford. The international currency of the proverb is vouched for by Augusto Arthaber, Dizionario comparato di proverbi e modi proverbiali italiani, latini, francesi, spagnoli, tedeschi, inglesi e greci antichi (Milan n.d.) 273. Strangely enough Arthaber does not mention the Biblical source. I have no faith in a modern Chinese parallel cited by Stevenson and take it for a translation of the Biblical passage.

  2. Tilley B 76.

  3. Oxford 19; Stevenson 1611: 3. It is curious that no instance of Gresham's Law older than 1902 is cited in proverb collections.

  4. See Tilley D 174, F 277, G 446, L 538, N 17, P 457, W 234.

  5. Parömiologische Betrachtungen, FF Communications, 172 (Helsinki 1957) 36.

  6. Otto denies the proverbial quality of this passage; see p. 77 note*. It is cited here as an example of the rhetorical device.

  7. Sumerian Proverbs. Glimpses of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia, Museum monographs (Philadelphia 1959) 46 (Collection I, No. 10).


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