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In the study of proverbs many questions arouse scholarly attention. A review of what can be done in the investigation of proverbs may awaken interest in further endeavors in the same directions. The study of proverbs deals with: the bibliography of proverbs and proverb collections; the assemblage of new materials and the availability of old sources; the origin, history, influence, reliability, and value of collections; the history of individual proverbs with the interpretation and the evaluation of their changing forms; the rise and use of proverbial types and formulae including proverbial phrases; Wellerisms; proverbial comparisons; the translation of proverbs from one language into another; literary conventions in the use of proverbs; etc., etc.

Problems in the study of proverbs are attractive because they involve a small mass of comparatively accessible material. They are, moreover, easy to grasp and to execute. They interest scholars with the most varied abilities, for whatever talent one may possess,--linguistic, critical, or bibliographical,--it can find application in the study of proverbs. Slight as proverbs are and insignificant as they may seem, careful study yields instructive and valuable results. We are led very directly to estimate the worth of different manners of expression and to perceive currents of ideas,--ethical, political, scientific, or esthetic,--in the history of humanity.


Although the bibliographical aids[1] for the study of proverbs are excellent in comparison with those available for many other subjects, further bibliographical assistance is desirable and necessary. For convenience we may distinguish lists of proverb collections and books about proverbs, bibliographies of proverb collections arranged according to subject, and bibliographical information concerning the parallels to individual proverbs.

Lists of collections of proverbs are of two kinds, international and national. Although the international lists are often very helpful, they are comparatively incomplete and the best recent lists confine themselves to the books owned by a single collector. The national lists are rather numerous and, in general, fairly comprehensive. Any sort of critical estimate of the works named in such lists is ordinarily lacking. Particularly attractive tasks which exceed what may be demanded of the mere bibliographer involve the compilation of a critical list with some indication of the course of development in collections of proverbs. For example, a competent critical bibliography of the English proverb collections would be very serviceable. The minor collections devoted to certain regions or special subjects are often overlooked by bibliographers. Yet such collections are usually careful records of popular tradition and are consequently admirable and useful sources of information. We should endeavor to supplement our present bibliographical knowledge by listing journal articles, particularly those in local historical and geographical periodicals, and by compiling critical and historical lists.

In The Proverb I have tried to survey proverb collections arranged according to subject-matter: fishing and hunting (p. 14), the sea (p. 14), the trades and business (pp. 15, 92), fables in proverbs (p. 27), familiar quotations (p. 34), the Bible in proverbs (p. 52), women (p. 66), historical events (p. 82), law (p. 86), legal formulae (p. 89), legal maxims (p. 96), "blason populaire" (p. 97), weather (p. 109), medicine (p. 121), physiognomy (p. 127), conventional phrases (p. 129), proverbial phrases (p. 184), phrases for "drunken" (p. 200), Wellerisms (p. 200), proverbial comparisons (p. 220). Additions to any of these introductory bibliographies can be made by a little search. As we see, bibliographical information about proverb collections according to language or subject-matter is available. Although enlargement and correction of our information are desirable, other tasks are more pressing.

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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.

Critical historical study of a collection of proverbs on a particular theme might show the increasing or varying importance of the theme in different ages. Business proverbs, for example, seem largely to be a recent invention, except those which have legal implications like "Caveat emptor." In medical, legal, and meteorological proverbs echoes of ideas long since discarded may persist and call for interpretation. Such tasks demand, of course, wide reading and familiarity with a field entirely apart from proverbs.


Collections of proverbs and particularly those of former ages often neglect to indicate the sources on which they draw. The true situation is in many instances disclosed by the preservation of the alphabetical order of the older collection or by the occurrence of misprints shared by the two collections. Thus, the first alphabetical collection of English proverbs issued in England rests upon a similar collection published three years earlier in Frankfurt am Main,[6] but there is no reference to the source. The alphabetical order of the German edition is preserved in general, although there are some deviations from correct English usage. Furthermore, the obvious errors of the German typesetter are set aright in the reprint, but enough persist to prove the dependence of the English list on the German one. For example, the English list keeps this perversion: "Wil wil haue wilt, thoug will woe winne."[7] The error wilt for wil, i. e. will, renders the proxerb unintelligible. Yet this error is found in James Howell's Greek text, Proverbs or Old Sayed Saws (London, 1659), in the various editions of John Ray's Collection of English Proverbs from the first in 1670 to the last in 1817, in H. G. Bohn's Handbook of Proverbs (London, 1855), in W. C. Hazlitt's English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, 1st ed., 1870, 2nd ed., 1907), and finally in W. G. Benham's Book of Quotations (London, 1924). For three centuries one or another of these books has been the standard collection of English proverbs, and in all of them the same error persists. A similar error accounts for "Kindness will creep where it cannot go" (Taylor, "Proverbia Britannica," No. 171), which worries Hazlitt (English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases,2 p. 283).

These examples are hardly necessary to prove human fallibility. They serve a more useful purpose in proving that no collection in the series, after the first, has had any connection with oral tradition, at least so far as these proverbs are concerned. They illustrate, moreover, how the relationship of collections can be demonstrated. Collections of proverbs are often a literary tradition and, one might almost say, a printer's tradition, handed down from generation to generation.[8]

As we see, the history of English proverbs traces back through one recension after another to the collection printed in Frankfurt am Main in 1611. This is the main stream. No doubt the rivulets which joined it and finally enlarged it manyfold can be discerned by careful study. It is a curious fact, for example, that the large collection of English proverbs which James Howell published in 1659 contains in essentially unchanged form the alphabetical list of 1611. In addition to this list which persists as a unit, there are supplementary lists in what appear to be groups of some sort. Evidently Howell derived his materials from different sources and neglected to combine them into a single alphabet. The additions which English proverb collections derive from George Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs (1640) are readily recognizable by such tokens as the curious and unidiomatic wording; these additions, moreover, can still be perceived in collections as recent as Hazlitt (1907). In Howell's lists of Spanish and Italian proverbs there are borrowings which preserve the original alphabetical order, but their sources have not been identified. In similar fashion the origin, history, and interrelations of many French, German, and Italian collections of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries must be cleared up. To be sure, the situation is not greatly different in recent collections, but the discovery of their borrowings is ordinarily not a matter of particular importance. Only sixty years ago Bohn protested loudly against Hazlitt's free and unacknowledged use of his collection.[9]

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.

There are, furthermore, curious details of cultural history in some proverbial comparisons and these must be examined and interpreted, e. g. "as mad as a March hare," "as mad as a hatter," or "as good as gold," which refers to the good behavior of a child but which must once have alluded to gold as a monetary standard. There is perhaps little or nothing to be said about the rhetorical aspect of proverbial comparisons. Those phrases which express a high degree by adding "... as Hell," e. g. "as tiresome as Hell," stretch the framework of a set of proverbial comparisons beyond all sense.


A noteworthy source of proverbs is translation from another language. In the history of a translated proverb we see tradition, oral or learned, accommodating the new proverb to the genius of the language of adoption.[29] The problems in such instances are stylistic and cultural. Since proverbs are necessarily traditional, they should characteristically use the ordinary manner of speech. Yet there are proverbs in the collections which differ in their phrasing from vernacular usage. For example, are those English proverbs which begin with the formula "He who ..." native English material? I suspect they are not. From what sources do they spring and in what languages do they have parallels? Comparison with French, German, and Latin use of the compound relative pronoun is obvious.

In addition to questions in the history of individual proverbs and groups of proverbs, we must also consider the extent of a foreign cultural current in a proverbial stock. What European proverbs have established themselves in African or American savage tradition? What changes have occurred during the process? Problems of cultural influence as they appear in the history of proverbs are often difficult of solution, but they are not insoluble. The only serious endeavor to find and list a group of proverbs which have been borrowed into a new culture is Altenkirch's "Die Beziehungen zwischen Slaven und Griechen in ihren Sprichwörtern," Archiv für slavische Philologie, XXX (1909), 1-47, 321-64. Much can yet be learned about the influence of classical Greek proverbs on Latin tradition or of medieval Latin and French proverbs on English and German tradition. The cultural currents between the Orient and Occident are obscure and uncharted.[30] A mere list of Arabic proverbs which have parallels in European tradition would be very useful and informative. What kinds of proverbs have been borrowed? At what times? Are there any differences in the borrowings made by different languages? Can the ways in which the borrowings occurred be determined?

The comparison of two proverbial stocks offers difficult problems, and almost all endeavors to solve them, particularly endeavors inspired by a nationalistic spirit, have been failures. Possibly Heusler's interesting comparison of Viking and later Scandinavian proverbs[31] can be adapted to other situations. Just how far we can go with such comparisons and what results can be won remains to be seen. Clearly enough "Faintheart ne'er won fair lady" belongs to a different sphere from "The pot calls the kettle black," but no one has as yet tried to draw any conclusions from such observations.


At different times proverbs have been used in conventional ways. Late medieval French poets, for example, often closed a stanza with a proverb,[32] and the device is found still earlier in the Proverbs of Hendyng and the Proverbs of Alfred. The history of this literary convention is yet to be traced. The same may be said of the device of naming a play after a proverb, a device which was employed in Elizabethan England, e. g. All's Well that Ends Well, and elsewhere. About the same time the vogue of plays composed almost entirely of proverbs started, perhaps with Adrien de Montluc's Comédie des proverbes, which was written in the first third of the seventeenth century. The literary fashion of the proverbes dramatiques, plays which dramatize a proverb after the manner of a charade, began at the end of the eighteenth century. Regarding all these conventional uses of proverbs we are ill informed.

The freedom with which proverbs are used in literature varies greatly with the different genres. Writing which has a satiric aim employs many proverbs, particularly when it appeals to the emotions of the masses. Historical song contains more proverbs than narrative or lyric song. Sermons addressed to the common people, such as those of Johannes Geiler of Keisersberg, cite proverbs to drive home a point. Observations on the rhetorical value of proverbs need to be made more precise. In studying the use of proverbs we must know the circumstances in which they occur, the kinds of proverbs chosen, and the author's purpose. Such facts lead us to conclusions about an author's style. The material from which conclusions can be drawn lies ready to hand in Martha Lenschau's admirable collection of Grimmelshausen's proverbs, in the various essays on the proverb in Hans Sachs, and in similar collections.

Such are typical problems in the study of proverbs. The endeavor to solve them can be dull and useless pedantry, and it will be no more than that if it does not envisage some larger purpose. What do we gain by knowing who invented a proverb or how it came into our speech? By itself the answer is naught and arriving at it is often a weary task. Yet the matter need not rest there. Learning the origin of a proverb tells us how influences reach the popular mind, what changes take place on the way from the inventor to the folk, and what persons and ideas imprint themselves on the mass consciousness. These are large answers to find in the origin of a proverb, but are they too large? By no means. In proverbs as in folk-literature generally we have a laboratory where the process of creating and adapting mass ideas never stops. An informative account of a single detail in that process is not dull, prosaic, and unimportant, if it is thrown upon a large enough background.

The historical and stylistic investigation of proverbs teaches us to see the varied pattern of our lives: the household maxim "New brooms sweep clean" and the racetrack aphorism "It's difference of opinion that makes a horserace" unite with the Biblical warning "Money is the root of all evil" in the fabric of our speech. Tracing out the different threads makes clear where our ways of thinking arise. The roots of our culture lie deep. It is no idle task to discover that the man who says "So help me God" uses a proverbial formula already current in Roman speech.[33] To point out such a fact is to write a chapter in human history. It shows how Roman ways of talking impressed themselves on Christianity and how Christianity in turn moulds modern life. Chance did not determine this history. On the contrary, powerful influences which have shaped the course of world-events reflect themselves in the development of a phrase. A simple turn of speech lets us view civilization from a mountain-peak.

When we perceive these currents of thought and social influence in proverbs, we find life broader, deeper, and more beautiful. Observe that it is not the moral lesson taught by a proverb that enriches life, for proverbs counsel the middle path and bourgeois or peasant shrewdness need not be inculcated. The enhancement of life follows from viewing man's creations sub specie aeternitatis. That a proverb arose in a particular way, exhibits a certain stylistic feature, or affords us any other recondite bit of information are, in themselves, facts without significant value to the world. Value comes only from interpreting the facts to meet our cultural needs or to feed our spirits. The interpretation may be in terms of history, cultural history, aesthetic standards, or, in short, any social activity. The fact is necessary and equally so the interpretation.

Carried away by the logic of the natural sciences, which can record facts without end, a former generation sought zealously for facts but neglected to relate them to its life. The present generation, I fear, blinks at facts, notwithstanding its loud protestations to the contrary, and gives interpretations which, being often hastily conceived and poorly supported, must soon wither. To seek facts for their own sake is quite as wrong as to read meanings into an incomplete or inaccurate acquaintance with the facts. An old proverb warns us: The blind should judge no colors.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 15-39

  1. See Taylor, "An introductory bibliography for the study of proverbs," Modern Philology, XXX (1932), 195-210.

  2. Fortunalety some good preliminary work has been done in the classical Greek and medieval French proverb, although it is scattered through a score of pamphlets. Ready reference to the medieval Latin proverb is troublesome: an index to the proverbs in the various editions by Ernst Voigt would be a convenient tool in the absence of anything more complete. For the bibliography of classical Greek, medieval Latin, and medieval French proverbs see the article cited in the first footnote.

  3. See a preliminary list of such collections in Taylor, Modern Philology, XXX (1932), 208-9.

  4. For some of the tests which can be applied see my Proverb, pp. 6ff.

  5. See W. Uhl, Die deutsche Priamel, p. 267; C. Schweitzer in Hans-Sachs-Forschungen, ed. A. L. Stiefel [Nürnberg, 1894], p. 362, n. 2. J. Franck (Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XXI [Leipzig, 1885], 136) condemns the collection severely. A copy of Mayr's collection is in Berlin.

  6. Taylor, "Proverbia Britannica," Washington University Studies (St. Louis), XI (1924), 409ff.

  7. No. 328 in the reprint mentioned in the preceding note.

  8. See, e.g., Jente's comparison of two standard English collections (Modern Language Notes XLII [1927], 486).

  9. See A Case of Plagiarism (London, 1869), cited in W. Bonser and T. A. Stephens, Proverb Literature (London, 1930), p. 64, No. 545.

  10. See, as an introduction, J. Klapper, Die Sprichwörter der Freidankpredigten (Proverbia Fridanci); ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des ostmitteldeutschen Sprichworts und seiner lateinischen Quelle ("Wort und Brauch," XVII [Breslau, 1927]) and the judicious remarks of R. Jente, Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde, XXVII (1928), 257-8.

  11. Johannes Fischart (Berlin, 1921), 1, 288.

  12. See F. Zarncke, Der deutsche Cato (Leipzig, 1852); C. Schröder, Der deutsche Facetus (Berlin, 1911).

  13. Romanische Forschungen, XVI (1904), 232.

  14. See Apperson, p. 119, and Taylor, Index to the 'Proverb' for references to this and other proverbs cited.

  15. See Proverbia communia sive seriosa, No. 725; Haeckel, Das Sprichwort bei Chaucer (Erlangen, 1890), 123.

  16. "Locutions et proverbs obscurs," Romania, L (1924), 499-514.

  17. "Der Schneider und die Geiss im Volksmunde bis zum 17. Jahrhundert," Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde, XXX (1931), 88-105.

  18. Ed. G. Milchsack ("Neudrucke deutscher Litteraturwerke," Nos. 34-5) Halle, (1882), 1. 759.

  19. Heinrich Bebels Schwänke (ed. A. Wesselski; Munich, 1907), II, 41, 130 (III, No. 92); Johannes Pauli's Schimpf und Ernst (ed. J. Bolte; Berlin, 1924), No. 221; K. F. W. Wander's Deutsches Sprichwörterlexikon, II col. 1855, No. 209; IV, col. 1014, Nos. 516, 522.

  20. The Delphic Maxims in Literature (Chicago, 1929).

  21. See, e.g., the history of "Sunt tria damna domus" (Taylor, Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde, XXIV [1925], 130-46).

  22. See I. V. Zingerle, Das deutsche Kinderspiel im Mittelalter2 (Innsbruck, 1873), p. 161; F. K. Grieshaber, Altdeutsche Predigten, II (Stuttgart, 1846), p. viii; H. Dunger, Kinderlieder und Kinderspiele aus dem Vogtlande2 (Plauen, 1894), p. 126, No. 227.

  23. See Otto, Die Sprichwörter der Römer (Leipzig, 1890), p. 268, No. 1358; Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, 1929), pp. 439, "necessity," 508, " poverty."

  24. Taylor, The Proverb, pp. 160ff.

  25. An illustration of the history of a proverbial formula in which grammatical changes have played a determining role is Taylor's "The proverbial formula 'Man soll...,'" Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, XL (1930), 152-56.

  26. See M. Liening, Die Personifikation unpersönlicher Hauptwörter bei den Vorläufern Shakespeares (1904) .

  27. Wienert, Die Typen der griechisch-römischen Fabel, "FF Communications" LVI (Helsinki, 1925), 83 (ET 495), 121 (ST 304); Wesselski, Hodscha Nasreddin (Berlin, 1911), I, 218, No. 51; Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folk-Tale, " FF Communications" LXXIV (Helsinki, 1928), No. 1830 and his forthcoming Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, J 1041. I.

  28. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (London, 1929), 4, quoting Bohn, Handbook of Proverbs (London, 1855), 562, which, in turn, may come from Proverbs or the Manual of Wisdom (London, 1804), 105 ("curate" instead of "vicar"). J. Wood (Dictionary of Quotations [London, 1912], 547) and Benham (Book of Quotations [London, 1924], 872 b) presumably quote from Bohn. Lean's reference (Collectanea II, 752) to Fuller, Gnomologia is a slip of some sort.

  29. See, e.g.,Jente, "Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde," Publications of the Modern Language Association, XLII (1927), 865-72.

  30. See, however, Jente, "German Proverbs from the Orient," Publications of the Modern Language Association, XLVIII (1933), 17-37.

  31. Altgermanische Literatur ("Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft" [Berlin, 1923]), p. 68.

  32. T. A. Jenkins, Modern Language Notes, XXIII (1908), 167-8.

  33. L. Foulet, "'Si m'aït Deus' et l'ordre des mots." Romania, LIII (1927), 301-24.

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