Editor's note: This article is a reprint from "Stories That Words Tell Us" By Elizabeth O'Neill. It was published in 1918, but still gives a good insight on how and why proverbs are created and used.
Every child knows what a proverb is, though every child may not, perhaps, be able to say in its own words just what makes a proverb. A proverb has been defined as "a wise saying in a few words." At any rate, if it is not always wise, the person who first said it and the people who repeat it think it is. Most proverbs are very old, and take us back, just as we saw that words formed from the names of animals do, to the early days before the growth of large towns.
In those days life was simple, and people thought chiefly of simple things. When they thought children or young persons were going to do something foolish they gave them good advice, and tried to teach them a little lesson from their own experience of what happened among the common things around them.
A boy or a girl who was very enthusiastic about some new thing was warned that "new brooms sweep clean." When several people were anxious to help in doing one thing, they were pushed aside (just as they are now) with the remark that "too many cooks spoil the broth." The people who use this proverb now generally know very little about broth and still less about cooking. They say it because it expresses a certain truth in a striking way; but the first person who said it knew all about cooks and kitchens, and spoke out of the fullness of her (it must have been a woman) experience.
No one can say who was the first person to use any particular proverb.
Again, a person who is discontented with the way in which he lives and is anxious to change it is warned lest he jump "out of the frying-pan into the fire." Again the wisdom comes from the kitchen. And we may remark that these sayings are difficult to contradict.
But there are other proverbs which contain statements about birds and animals and things connected with nature, and sometimes these seem only half true to the people who think about them. We sometimes hear it said of a person who is very quiet and does not speak much that "still waters run deep." This is true in Nature. A little shallow brook will babble along, while the surface of a deep pool will have hardly a ripple on it. But a quiet person is not necessarily a person of great character or lofty thoughts. Some people hardly speak at all, because, as a matter of fact, they find nothing to say. They are quiet, not because they are "deep," but because they are shallow. Still, the proverb is not altogether foolish, for when people use it about some one they generally mean that they think this particular quiet person is one with so much going on in his or her mind that there is no temptation to speak much. "Empty vessels make most sound" is another of these proverbs which is literally true, but is not always true when applied to people. A person who talks a great deal with very little to say quite deserves to have this proverb quoted about him or her. But there are some people who are great talkers just because they are so full of ideas, and to them the proverb does not apply.
Just how deep are these still waters?
Another of these nature proverbs, and one which has exasperated many a late riser, is, "The early bird catches the worm." Many people have inquired in their turn, "And what about the worm?" But the proverb is quite true, all the same.
Again, "A rolling stone gathers no moss" is a proverb which has been repeated over and over again with many a headshake when young people have refused to settle down, but have changed from one thing to another and roamed from place to place. And this is quite true. But we may ask, "Is it a good thing for stones to gather moss?" After all, the adventurous people sometimes win fortunes which they could never have won if they had been afraid to move about. And the adventurous people, too, win other things--knowledge and experience--which are better than money. Of course the proverb is wise to a certain degree, for mere foolish changing without any reason cannot benefit any one. But things can gather rust as well as moss by keeping still, and this is certainly not a good thing.
"Where there's a will there's a way." So the old proverb says, and this is probably nearly always true, except that no one can do what is impossible. "Look before you leap" is also good advice for impetuous people, who are apt to do a thing rashly and wonder afterwards whether they have done wisely.
The most interesting thing about proverbs to the student of words is that they are always made up of simple words such as early peoples always used. But we go on repeating them, using sometimes words which we should never choose in ordinary speech, and yet never noticing that they are old-fashioned and quaint.
It is true that there are some sayings which are so often quoted that they seem almost like proverbs. But a line of poetry or prose, however often it may be quoted, is not a proverb if it is taken from the writings of a person whom we know to have used it for the first time. These are merely quotations. No one can say who was the first person to use any particular proverb. Even so long ago as the days of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle many proverbs which are used in nearly every land to-day were ages old. Aristotle describes them as "fragments of an elder wisdom."
Clearly, then, however true some quotations from Shakespeare and Pope and Milton may be, and however often repeated, they are not proverbs.
"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
This line expresses a deep truth, and is as simply expressed as any proverb, but it is merely a quotation from Pope. Again,
"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"
is true enough, and well enough expressed to bear frequent quotation, but it is not a "fragment of elder wisdom." It is merely Pope's excellent way of saying that foolish people will interfere in delicate matters in which wise people would never think of meddling. Here, again, the language is not particularly simple as in proverbs, and this will help us to remember that quotations are not proverbs. There is, however, a quotation from a poem by Patrick A. Chalmers, a present-day poet, which has become as common as a proverb:--
"What's lost upon the roundabouts
[Editor: I've never heard this quote, but I am assuming it is similar to the proverb "What goes around, comes around" ]
The fact that this is expressed simply and even ungrammatically does not, of course, turn it into a proverb.
Though many of the proverbs which are repeated in nearly all the languages of the world are without date, we know the times when a few of them were first quoted. In Greek writings we already find the half-true proverb, "Rolling stones gather no moss;" and, "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip," which warned the Greeks, as it still warns us, of the uncertainty of human things. We can never be sure of anything until it has actually happened. In Latin writings we find almost the same idea expressed in the familiar proverb, "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush"--a fact which no one will deny.
This is what happens when you don\'t keep rolling.
St. Jerome, who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin in the fourth century and wrote many wise books besides, quotes two proverbs which we know well: "It is not wise to look a gift horse in the mouth," and, "Liars must have good memories." The first again deals, like so many of the early proverbs, with the knowledge of animals. A person who knows about horses can tell from the state of their mouths much about their age, health, and general value. But, the proverb warns us, it is neither gracious nor wise to examine too closely what is given to us freely. It may not be quite to our liking, but after all it is a present.
The proverb, "Liars must have good memories," means, of course, that people who tell lies are liable to forget just what tale they have told on any particular occasion, and may easily contradict themselves, and so show that they have been untruthful. It is necessary, then, for such a person, unless he wishes to be found out, to remember exactly what lies he has told.
Many proverbs have remained in the English language, not so much for the wisdom they contain as for the way in which they express it. Some are in the form of a rhyme--as, "Birds of a feather flock together," and "East and west, home is best." These are always favourites.
Others catch the ear because of their alliteration; that is to say, two or three of their words begin with the same letter. Examples of this are: "Look before you leap." The proverb "A stitch in time saves nine" has something of both these attractions, though it is not exactly a rhyme. Other examples of alliteration in proverbs are: "Delays are dangerous," "Speech is silvern, silence is golden."
A few proverbs are witty as well as wise, and these are, perhaps, the best of all, since they do not, as a rule, exasperate the people to whom they are quoted, as many proverbs are apt to do. Usually these witty proverbs are metaphors.
The cover picture is part of a 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It depicts a number of Flemish proverbs that were popular during the time.
|Revisited - Proverbs|
All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.
|Letter From The Editor - Truth in Advertising|
|Linear A & Linear B - Lost Minoan|
|Edward Sapir - Patterns of Language|
|At the Cinema - Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner|
|Word on the Streets - Norwegian Notables|
|Where Are You?|
|Celebrations - Valentine's Day|
|Languages in Peril - The Rhaeto-Romance Trio|
|Revisited - Proverbs|
|Linguistics Love Song|
|Language Learning Methods - Books|
|Sections - Recordings|
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