THE USE OF PROPER NAMES IN WELLERISMS
AND FOLK TALES*
As far as I know, the earliest
instance of the proverb discussed in this essay is a version
written down about 1521 and published in 1533 by John
Heywood. It is "Mary that wolde I se quod blynde Hew ('Mary!
that would I [gladly] see,' said blind
Hugh).'' This is a Wellerism or traditional proverbial form
consisting of a remark with an ascription (said So-and-so)
to a named or an unnamed person, occasionally an animal, and
more rarely a thing. Much has been written about sayings of this kind and more
remains to be said, but we shall consider here only this
example and shall deal particularly with the ways in which
the speaker is identified.
Warning: file(http://www.deproverbio.com/content468.txt): failed to open stream: HTTP request failed! HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
in /home/world68/public_html/DPjournal/DP,2,1,96/WELLERISMS.html on line 104
Warning: join(): Invalid arguments passed in /home/world68/public_html/DPjournal/DP,2,1,96/WELLERISMS.html on line 104
Warning: Division by zero in /home/world68/public_html/DPjournal/DP,2,1,96/WELLERISMS.html on line 113
The English versions of this Wellerism
down to 1738 are as follows:
1632 "We'll say nothing, but
we'll see," as blind Pete said to his dog (Lean II
1640 "That I would fain see," quoth the blind George of
Holloway (Apperson, p. 55, No. 15; Karl Pfeffer, Das
elisabethanische Sprichwort in seiner Verwendung bei Ben
Jonson [Diss., Giessen, 1933], p. 138, No.
271; Oxford, p. 185; Stevenson, p. 198: 6;
cl640 "I w'ud I c'ud see't," ka' blind Hugh (Apperson, p.
55, No. 18; Tilley) .
1678 "Would I could see it," quoth blind Hugh (Apperson,
p. 55, No. 18; Oxford, p. 185; Stevenson, p. 198:
1738 "Would I could see it," quoth blind Hugh
(Oxford, p. 570; p. 2108: 2).
Similar sayings are widely current on
the continent of Europe. The earliest instance seems to be
that in Johannes Fischart, Aller Praktik Grossmutter (1572), a parody of the prognostications of the weather for
the coming year. Here it appears as "'I want to see it,'
said a blind man once upon a time (Ich will es sehen, sagt
ein mal ein blinder).'' Half a dozen examples in modern German dialects ranging from
Mecklenburg to Swabia are variations of "'Now we want to
see,' said the blind man, as the lame man wanted to run
(dance)." About the same time that Fischart used the proverb Francesco
Serdonati included it in a large collection of Italian
proverbs that has remained unpublished until the present
day. Fortunately, however, Charles Speroni has excerpted and
published Serdonati's Wellerisms from the manuscript. Among
them we find three pertinent versions: (1) "Staremo a vedere
disse il cieco"; (2) "Come disse Lucca cieco: Lo vorrei
vedere"; (3) "Come disse Nanni cieco:
Vedere." Speroni cites various Italian parallels to these texts and
notes that an English version, "To say as Lucca the blindman
said, viz., I would fain see that" (1666 Tilley), is a
translation of the second. The saying seems to have been
associated with "Di veduta disse il cieco," which occurs in various forms, some of which name the
speaker but do not declare him to be blind. Speroni adds a
citation of a modern collection, indicating that the saying
is still current in Italy. F. Sánchez y Escribano
cites two Spanish examples, but his authorities give no
references to their sources. I add Cervantes' use of the saying in Don Quixote, Vol. I, Bk. iv, ch. 23. which reads in Thomas Shelton's
translation of 1612: "As one blind man said to another,
let's behold ourselves." On turning northward, we find three examples cited in
Kruyskamp's charming collection of Dutch Wellerisms: (I)
"'Au revoir,' said the blind man (Tot weerziens, sei de
blinde)"; (2) "'That I should indeed like to see sometime,'
said Maai, and she was blind (Dat zou ik wel eens willen
zien, zei Maai, en se was blind)"; and (3) "'I like to see
fish,' said the cat, and ate them up, being blind (Ik mag
gaarne visch zien, zei de kat, en zij at se blindelings
op)." Evald Tang Kristensen has noted a Danish instance, "One must
see with one's own eyes, said the blind man (Man må se
med sine egne öjne, sagde den blinde mand)" and some
curious parallels mentioning animals like Kruyskamp's third
version. From the province of Halland in southern Sweden Fredrik
Ström gives an instance containing a proper name, "'Can
you see?,' said blind Sarah (Kan du se, sa
Blinna-Sara).'' And finally, a number of parallels mentioning animals as the
speakers have been published from the collections of the
Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland.
I see, said the blind man with a
shake of his wooden leg, that the price of lumber has
I see, said the blind man as he peeped through the hole
in grandpa's wooden leg (H.42).
I see, said the blind man as he spit through the knothole
in his wooden leg (H. 45).
In one California version the speaker is identified in a
special way for an obvious reason: "'Sí,
sí,' said the blind Mexican."
Dean Halpert, who has given me much
aid and encouragement, is making a study of the texts with
special regard to their possible connection with a story of
a blind man who saw a rabbit and a naked man who picked it
up and put it in his pocket. We shall have no occasion to anticipate his work, for it is
sufficient here to stress the obvious evidences for oral
transmission in these texts. As in many modern Wellerisms,
puns have come to play a large share in the wit of these
texts. It will be noticed that the simple notion of quoting
a blind man's reference to seeing has seemed insufficient
and has called for enlargement by referring to a
characteristic but quite irrelevant act. The figure of the
blind man has, furthermore, suggested mention of deaf and
dumb persons and even a deaf dog. And finally, our Wellerism
probably shows contamination with another and quite
unrelated Wellerism, "'Aha,' she cried and waved her wooden
leg." A more detailed analysis of these modern versions is
unnecessary. They imply the existence of a flourishing oral
We can now summarize what we have
learned. The record of the early use of the Wellerism is
surprisingly generous. The six examples from the two
centuries between 1533 and 1738 are, with the probable
exception of the last, independent witnesses to oral
tradition. Dean Swift may in 1738 have found the Wellerism
referring to blind Hugh in Ray's collection of 1678, from
which he had taken a great deal. Mrs. Mackie L. Jarrel's
comment on his procedure is instructive. She says, "The
strongest critical conviction which emerges from surveying
Swift's proverbs is this: Polite Conversation is the
work of a man of letters, a frequenter of
From its first occurrence to the
middle of the eighteenth century our Wellerism was
characteristically known in a form that identified the
speaker by a proper name. Whether this speaker was actually
an historical person must remain uncertain, but we have in
any case a tradition that is clearly conceived in concrete
terms. A relic of these definite allusions to the speaker
survives in Alexander Hislop's Scottish version, "'I would
rather see than hear tell o't,' as blind Pete
said,'' but this form of the Wellerism became extinct in the
nineteenth century and references to "the blind man" who is
often identified or described by adverbial and adjectival
clauses, are preferred. Some of the changes appear to be
wholly whimsical and others may be the products of
Insignificant as the details of the
history of our Wellerism may have seemed to be, the better
knowledge of tradition and its ways of working that we gain
from them throws light into a darkness that we shall never
*Reprinted from Wolfgang
Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer
Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp.
G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London,
1929), p. 55, No. 18; V. S. Lean, Collectanea (4
v. in 5, Bristol, 1902-1904), II, 747; W. G. Smith and
Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English
Proverbs (2d ed. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948),
p. 70; Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs,
Maxims and Familiar Phrases (New York,
), p. 198:6; M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary
of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and
Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), G 84; B. J.
Whiting, Proverbs in the Earlier English Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1938), p. 177. Except for Smith and
Heseltine, which I shall cite as Oxford, these
collections will be cited by the authors' names.
For general discussions
of the Wellerism see my Proverb (Cambridge, Mass.,
1931), pp. 200-220; Gustav Cederschiö1d, Om
ordstäv och andra ämnen (Lund,
), pp. 5-33; Fredrik Ström, Svenska
ordstäv (Stockholm, , pp. 5-39; C.
Kruyskamp, Apologische spreekwoorden ('s
Gravenhage, 1947), pp. 1-14.
See the chapter "Von der
Finsternuss" (Neudrucke deutscher Literaturwerke des 16.
und 17. Jahrhunderts, 2 [Halle, 1876], p.
[E. Hoefer], Wie das Volk spricht (8th ed., Stuttgart, 1876),
p. 31, No. 311. More precise references will be found in
K. F. W. Wander, Deutsches
Sprichwörter-Lexikon (5 v., Leipzig, 1867-1880),
IV, 501, Nos. 11-13, 508, No. 176, and cf. p. 502, No.
48, and p. 508, No. 175.
The Italian Wellerism
to the End of the Seventeenth Century, Folklore
Studies, 1 (Berkeley, 1953), pp. 23-24, No. 67. He had
previously quoted these texts in "Wellerismi tolti dai
proverbi inediti di Francesco Serdonati," Folklore (Naples), IV (1949), 10.
See Speroni, p. 24, No.
70 and cross-references.
paremiológicos castellanos", Revista de
filologia española, XXIII (1936), 289, No.
135. The first reference is to F. Rodríguez
Marín, Más de 21,000 refranes
castellanos (Madrid, 1926), p. 506 (Veremos, dijo el
ciego, y nunca vió) and the second is, to Gabriel
Correas, Vocabulario de refranes y frases proverbiales
. . . (2nd ed., Madrid, 1924), p. 503
(Verémonos, y eran dos ciegos, Veremos, dijo el
Quoted from Stevenson,
Pp. 4 and 85, Nos. 649,
Danske ordsprog og
mundheld (Copenhagen, 1890), p. 458, No. 1034. Note
also Nos. 1035 and 1036, which are similar, and four
references (pp. 462-463, Nos. 1125-1128) to remarks
addressed to a blind animal. The last and longest of
these may be translated thus: "'You can see for
yourseff,' said the man to the blind cow. He wanted to
make it think that he was giving it oats, but it was only
straw." (The word that I have translated "cow" is common
gender and may also mean "ox".) P. 225.
Solstrand, Ordstäv, Svenska
Litteratursällskapet i Finland, Skrifter, 172
(Finlands svenska folkdiktning, 3, Helsingfors, 1923), p.
269 (about a score of versions).
"Some Wellerisms from
Kentucky and Tennessee," Journal of American
Folklore, LXIX (1956), 115-122.
See also Ruth Odell,
"Nebraska Smart Sayings," Southern Folklore
Quarterly, XII (1948), 191, No. 4.
Cited from C. G. Loomis,
"Traditional American Word Play: Wellerisms or
Yankeeisms," Western Folklore, VIII (1949), 18.
This quotation is dated 1860.
See Halpert, pp.
121-122, citing a text printed in 1933.
See also Margaret M.
Kimmerle, "A Method of Collecting and Classifying Folk
Sayings," Western Folklore, VI (1947), 357 (hammer
and saw). Four versions with "hammer and saw" have been
reported from California, and the version with "chisel
and saw" is from California.
The version "'I see,'
says the blind man. 'You lie,' says the beggar" (H. 31)
may be corrupt.
J Bolte and G. Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der
Brüder Grimm (5 v., Leipzig, 1913-1932), III,
115-119, will supply references to parallels.
"The Proverbs in Swift's
'Polite Conversation,"' The Huntington Library
Quarterly, XX (1956), 15-38. For the sentence quoted
see p. 38.
The Proverbs of
Scotland (Glasgow, 1862), p. 128 (3d ed., Edinburgh,
1868), p. 195.
ordstäv," Folkminnen och folktankar, XII
(1925), No. 2, pp. 27-38.
Cited in Taylor, p.
vergleichenden Märchenforschung," Zeitschrift des
Vereins für Volkskunde, XXV (1915), 154-166. The
passage paraphrased below will be found on p.