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;
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.
1. THE BIBLIOGRAPHY OF PROVERBS AND PROVERB
Although the bibliographical
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
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
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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
3. THE SOURCES AND HISTORY OF PROVERB COLLECTIONS.
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
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." The error wilt for wil, i. e. will, renders the proxerb unintelligible. Yet this error is found
in James Howell's , 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.
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
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.
7. TRANSLATED PROVERBS.
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. 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. 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 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.
8. PROBLEMS IN THE USE OF PROVERBS.
At different times proverbs have been used in
conventional ways. Late medieval French poets, for example,
often closed a stanza with a
proverb, 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. 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
*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp.
See Taylor, "An introductory bibliography for the
study of proverbs," Modern Philology, XXX (1932),
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.
See a preliminary list of such collections in Taylor, Modern Philology, XXX (1932), 208-9.
For some of the tests which can be applied see my Proverb, pp. 6ff.
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.
Taylor, "Proverbia Britannica," Washington
University Studies (St. Louis), XI (1924), 409ff.
No. 328 in the reprint mentioned in the preceding
See, e.g., Jente's comparison of two standard English
collections (Modern Language Notes XLII
See A Case of Plagiarism (London, 1869), cited
in W. Bonser and T. A. Stephens, Proverb
Literature (London, 1930), p. 64, No. 545.
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),
Johannes Fischart (Berlin, 1921), 1, 288.
See F. Zarncke, Der deutsche Cato (Leipzig,
1852); C. Schröder, Der deutsche Facetus (Berlin, 1911).
Romanische Forschungen, XVI (1904), 232.
See Apperson, p. 119, and Taylor, Index to the
'Proverb' for references to this and other proverbs
See Proverbia communia sive seriosa, No. 725;
Haeckel, Das Sprichwort bei Chaucer (Erlangen,
"Locutions et proverbs obscurs," Romania, L
"Der Schneider und die Geiss im Volksmunde bis zum
17. Jahrhundert," Hessische Blätter für
Volkskunde, XXX (1931), 88-105.
Ed. G. Milchsack ("Neudrucke deutscher
Litteraturwerke," Nos. 34-5) Halle, (1882), 1. 759.
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.
The Delphic Maxims in Literature (Chicago,
See, e.g., the history of "Sunt tria damna domus"
(Taylor, Hessische Blätter für
Volkskunde, XXIV , 130-46).
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.
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."
Taylor, The Proverb, pp. 160ff.
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
See M. Liening, Die Personifikation
unpersönlicher Hauptwörter bei den
Vorläufern Shakespeares (1904) .
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
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.
See, e.g.,Jente, "Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde," Publications of the Modern Language Association, XLII
See, however, Jente, "German Proverbs from the
Orient," Publications of the Modern Language
Association, XLVIII (1933), 17-37.
Altgermanische Literatur ("Handbuch der
Literaturwissenschaft" [Berlin, 1923]), p. 68.
T. A. Jenkins, Modern Language Notes, XXIII
L. Foulet, "'Si m'aït Deus' et l'ordre des
mots." Romania, LIII (1927), 301-24.