Proverbs are common
sayings among the people; commonness is their state of
being. There are the common sayings of four-person whist
groups; there are also sayings that were engraved on clay
tablets thousands of years ago and that are still repeated
every day over five continents. The difference is one of
degree, but is not insignificant: it is clear that Ei ole
koiraa karvoihin katsomista (You cannot judge a dog by
its coat), known to all as an example of folk psychology, or Punatukkanen ee piäse taevaasee (A red-head will
not get to heaven), common elsewhere but extremely rare in
Finland, belong to two completely different classes.
Proverbs do not, however, come accompanied by records of
their commonece, as do the plants of a school botany; in,
for example, provincial collections of proverbs, those with
a nationwide spread and ephemeral witticisms known only to
small circles live happily as equals and it is even true
that the commonest proverbs are, in them, rarities, while
the rarities have been published again and again.
One of the most
difficult problems of rescarching proverbs is why some
particular human statement should take wing over seas and
mountains, over boundaries of language, religion and race,
from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation, from
millennium to millennium. Why, on the other hand, have
thousands of sayings that were found, for example, all over
medieval Europe, been completely forgotten today? Why do
some proverbs tend to spread, and others tend to
I shall take as my
starting material the commonest Finnish proverbs; in these
cases, variations in popularity are at their most extreme
and the necessary number of variants most easily gathered.
Included are, first of all, the twenty proverbs that are
most often repeated in the primary sources dating from
before the fire of Turku (1827). A second group of twenty
popular proverbs has been sifted from material from
collection-competitions of the 1930s, from fifty smallish
collections of proverbs from different parts of
sana tulevi, kipinästä maa kytevi (From a word comes a word; from a spark the
earth catches fire cf. Fire from a spark, war
from a word, FFC 236: 148).
kakku päältä nähden, vaan on
sirkkoja sisällä, akanoita alla kuoren (The cake is fine on top, but there
are crickets inside, chaff under the crust; cf.
The cake is splendid on top, but inside is
chaff, FFC 236: 83).
miestä sarvesta härkää (Take a man by his word, take a bull by its
horn, FFC 236: 238).
saatti suden ritahan, kieli kärpän
lautasehen (The mouth brought the wolf into
the trap, the tongue the ermine to the snare;
cf. Hunger is sharper than the sword, S
pitkästä ilosta, pieru kauan
nauramasta (Laughter from long joy, a fart
from laughing long; cf. Deep laughter leads to
tears, S 1356).
siellä, vetelä täällä,
ei kuivaa kussaan (Swamp there, water here,
not dry anywhere, FFC 236:
jalka kapsaa, sen suu napsaa (He whose foot
kicks has food to put in his mouth; cf. He who
shuns the millstone, shuns the meal, S 577:
mies merentakainen, ei tule turpehen alainen (A man comes back from beyond the seas,
not from under the sod).
kaikki kultaa mikä kiiltää
eikä kaikki hopeata mikä hohtaa (All that glisters is not gold, nor silver that
lehmä lähtehessä, sen käsi
alinna (Whose cow is in the swamp has his
hand in the deepest, FFC 236:
11. Aika hiiren haukotella puoli kissan
persehessä (Time for the mouse to yawn
when it's half inside the cat; cf. Too late
repents the rat, when caught by the cat, S
kiitellen elävi, katinpoika
kaunistellen (A cat lives on praise, a dog
by pats on the head, FFC 236:
13. Elä maassa maan tavalla taikka maasta
pois pakene (Live in the country as they
live, or leave, FFC 236:
vanhan vanhentavi, kaksi lapsen kasvattavi (One year ages the old, two years grow a child,
FFC 236: 389).
kiitti hevostansa, mielipuoli vaimoansa,
epätaito lapsiansa (A fool boasts of
his horse, a madman of his wife, the skilless
his children) FFC 236: 428)
16. Jumalall on onnen ohjat, Luojalla lykyn
avaimet, ei katehen kainalossa pahansuovan
sormenpäissä (The reins of
fortune, the keys to luck, are in the hands of
God and not under envy's arm or at an evil
17. Parempi pyy pivossa kuin kaksi oksalla (A bird in the hand is worth two in the
18. Satehiksi päivän sappi, poudiksi
kuun kehä (A ring round the sun for
rain, a ring round the moon for fine
pidä mennä syhymättä
saunaan (Don't go to the sauna if you're not
itching, FFC 236: 193).
kirjava metsässä, ihmisen ikä
kirjavampi (A woodpecker in the forest is
mottled, but a man's life is more so, FFC 236: 125).
21. Lisänä rikka rokassa
hämähäkki taikinassa (A bit
of dirt adds to the soup, a spider to the dough,
FFC 236: 372).
tulee räkänenästä, vaan ei
tyhjän naurajasta (A man comes from a
sniveller, but not from an empty scoffer, FFC
haukku haavaa tee, jos ei koira purra saa (A
bark leaves no marks if you don't let the dog
bite, FFC 236:155).
maa repee kun huora häpee (The earth
will be rent before a whore repents, FFC
25. Pohjaton kuin papin säkki (Bottomless as a priest's sack).
26. Kyllä vakka kantensa valitsee (The
box chooses its lid, FFC 236: 115)
27. Ei ole
koiraa karvoihin katsomista (You cannot
judge a dog by its coat, FFC 236:
28. Pienenee kuin pyy maailmanlopun
edellä (It shrinks like a partridge
before the end of the world).
29. Rahalla saa ja hevosella pääsee (Money buys and horses carry; cf. Money makes
the mare go, S l6l8: 4).
30. Hyvä kello kauas kuullu, paha vielä
kauemmas (A good bell [reputation]
is heard far, a bad even farther, FFC 236:
pitkästä ilosta, pieru kauan
nauramasta (Laughter from long joy, a fart
from laughing long).
32. Söis kissakin kalaa muttei kastais
kynsiään (The cat would eat fish,
too, but it wouldn't wet its paws, FFC
koiran (kissan) hännän nostaa, jos ei
koira (kissa) itse (Who raises the dog's
[cat's] tail if not the dog
[cat] itself, FFC 236:118).
köyhyys ole illo kellekään,
vaikka se välistä naurattaa (Poverty
is no joy, although it sometimes makes you
laugh, FFC 236: 665).
kiitos haisee (Self-praise
on paikka paikan päällä,
sillä on markka markan
päällä (Who covers a patch
with a patch covers a penny with a penny, FFC 236:
37. Kyllä routa porsaan kotiin ajaa (The
frost drives the pig home).
38. Kyllä sopu sijaa antaa (Harmony
makes space, FFC 236: 631).
39. Siinä on yksi, sanoi suutari
lauantaina (There's one, said the cobbler on
40. Siinä mies kuin toinenkin, sanoi
täi löylyssä (There's a man
like any other, said the flea in the
Every proverb is -
with its foreign or domestic roots, its receding or
spreading local redactions, its permanent or varying
formulae, its modernisations great or small - an object of
study in itself. But I shall address the following problem:
why does the popularity of some proverbs appear to decrease,
and that of others appear to increase? In what respects do
the groups of proverbs 1-20 and 21-40 differ from one
another? It is worth taking a close look at both groups: if
we were able to discern the strengths that have lifted the
latter to the peak of proverbial popularity and swept away
the former, we should know much about the entire direction
of the development or the Finnish psyche, general taste and
style of speech and cultural history over a period of
Among the group of old
proverbs there are at least four tinged with a sense of
destiny (numbers 8, 14, 16 and 20). Among the commonest
proverbs of the 1930s there is not a single corresponding
aphorism concerning the basic nature of life, death and
human existence, not even biological and technical
experiential and directional sayings such as number
It can be disputed
whether so small a sample group can be used to prove general
tendencies in the psychology or cultural history of a
people. It can also be claimed that the 20 proverbs under
examination are not completely commensurate, and that they
do not really represent the most popular proverbs of the
time. The 'old' frequency statistics are, in fact, final in
the sense that they are based on the entire surviving
material; it is hardly likely that enough new manuscripts
will be found that the composition of the group l-20 would
undergo significant change. On the other hand, it is
possible to make a more serious objection: since it is based
on material gathered and censored by clergy and educated
folk, it perhaps does not reflect the taste, preferences and
opinions of the people, but rather those of the clerks of
the period. It may well be that the saying, pohjaton
kuinpapin säkki (bottomless as a priest's
sack) may have been more generally
cultivated, centuries ago, than Jumalall on onnen ohjat (God holds the reins of luck), but that priestly
preferences have made it seem otherwise. As already
mentioned, my suggested development from a noble style to a
coarser one may also reflect the taste of the
the folk, of old. There are, in other words, sources of
error; unfortunately, there are no other objects of
comparison available. I believe it to be certain that
proverbs 1-20 were nevertheless all, in their time, very
widely distributed proverbs, and, on average, much commoner
than proverbs 21-40. The last-mentioned are based on
material that is irreproachable from the point of view of
frequency analysis in the sense that the competing
collectors, whose object was simply the size of their
collection, generally recorded all the proverbs they could
possibly remember. On the basis of the giant collections of
the Lexicography Foundation, the frequency statisitcs of the
1930s could be increased, for example, one hundredfold, in
which case it would be most likely that there would be
changes to the composition of the 21-40 group: some of the
15-variant favourites would no doubt be replaced by
14-variant proverbs such as these:
hiiri heinäkuorman alle kuole (A load of
hay won't crush a mouse, FFC 236: 57).
hulluja kynnetä eikä kylvetä,
itsestään niitä kasvaa (No need
to plough and sow madmen, they grow by
auta itku markkinoilla - turkki juoda pitää (No use crying at the market, sell your fur coat and
drink the money, FFC 236: 331).
kesän lehmättä kuin joulun akatta (Rather a man without a cow for the summer than
without a wife for Christmas night, FFC 236:
koira älähtää, johon kalikka kalahtaa (It's the dog you take a stick to that yelps,
FFC 236: 374).
kuin lehmä uutta porttia (He stares like a cow
at a new gate).
luule luuta lihaks, pässinpäätä
paistikkaaksi (Dont mistake the bone for meat, nor a
sheep's head for a roasted turnip, FFC 236:
nuolaise ennenkuin tipahtaa (Don't lick before it
drops, FFC 236: 630; cf. There's many a slip
'twixt cup and lip).
rokan syö, kaino ei saa kaaliakaan (The brave
eat the soup, the timid die of hunger, FFC 236:
meistä, sarvesta härkää (Take a
man by his word, take a bull by its horn, FFC 236:
seppä pihdit pitää, ettei kynnet palaa (Smiths have tongs so as not to burn their fingers,
FFC 236: 368).
talosta niin lähdetä kuin torpasta (You
don't leave a house as you do a croft).
The general picture
would hardly change: the Kalevala mode, the high style, the
sense of destiny are, in this 'complementary group',
represented even more weakly than among proverbs 21 to
It may be that
Saarijärven Paavo had an attitude to life that was in
some senses more 'aristocratic' than that of the subsidised
small farmers of today; but in general it is hardly likely
that variations in popularity of Finnish proverbs express
such a 'social decline' in this folklore genre, but rather
the general taming and civilisation of the backwoods Finnish
country village, the multiple strengthening of social ties.
Strong as is the danger of falsely subjective
interpretations and wishful thinking in this kind
at such an extensive comparison, I hope that the reader will
have gained some impression of the interesting and
far-reaching problems the little observations I have made
concerning variations in the popularity of proverbs can give
access to: the study of proverbs might, in the last
analysis, lead to an examination of the national identity.
Opinions will vary as to whether the boundaries of knowledge
will then have been crossed, or whether we shall then only
be arriving at the threshold of really interesting scholarly
*Reprinted from Mind and
Form in Folklore. Selected articles of Matti Kuusi. Ed.
by Henni Ilomäki. Studia fennica. Folkloristica 3.
Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Helsinki 1994, pp.
are taken from the following sources: FFC = Proverbia
septentrionalia; K = Matti Kuusi & Outi Lauhakangas,
Maailman sananlaskuviisaus, Helsinki 1993; S = Burton
Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar
Phrases. New York 1948.
proverb is, incidentally, an amusing proof of the purity
with which the folk tradition has been preserved and how
normatively literary sources influence the
intelligentsia's use of proverbs. Variants recorded by
around 60 students of Finnish began, without exception, Moni on kakku päältä kaunis (Many a cake is fine to look on; cf. Kalevala 33: 77). All the old and new folk
variants I have encountered, on the other hand, begin: Kaunis ka(a)kku päältä nähden (Fine the cake is to look at).