A proverb (from Latin: proverbium) is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. They are often metaphorical. A proverb that describes a basic rule of conduct may also be known as a maxim. If a proverb is distinguished by particularly good phrasing, it may be known as an aphorism.
Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible (Book of Proverbs) and medieval Latin have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Europe, although almost every culture has examples of its own.
- Haste makes waste
- A stitch in time saves nine.
- Ignorance is bliss
- Mustn't cry over spilt milk.
- You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
- Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
- Well begun is half done.
- A little learning is a dangerous thing.
- Don't poke the bear.
The study of proverbs is called: paremiology (from Greek παροιμία - paroimía, "proverb") and can be dated back as far as Aristotle. Paremiography, on the other hand, is the collection of proverbs. A prominent proverb scholar in the United States is Wolfgang Mieder. He has written or edited over 50 books on the subject, edits the journal Proverbium (journal), has written innumerable articles on proverbs, and is very widely cited by other proverb scholars. Mieder defines the term proverb as follows:A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.—Mieder 1985:119; also in Mieder 1993:24
Sub-genres include proverbial comparisons (“as busy as a bee”), proverbial interrogatives (“Does a chicken have lips?”) and twin formulae (“give and take”).
Another subcategory is wellerisms, named after Sam Weller from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1837). They are constructed in a triadic manner which consists of a statement (often a proverb), an identification of a speaker (person or animal) and a phrase that places the statement into an unexpected situation. Ex.: “Every evil is followed by some good,” as the man said when his wife died the day after he became bankrupt.
Yet another category of proverb is the anti-proverb (Mieder and Litovkina 2002), also called Perverb. In such cases, people twist familiar proverbs to change the meaning. Sometimes the result is merely humorous, but the most spectacular examples result in the opposite meaning of the standard proverb. Examples include, "Nerds of a feather flock together", "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and likely to talk about it," and "Absence makes the heart grow wander". Anti-proverbs are common on T-shirts, such as "If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you."
A similar form is proverbial expressions (“to bite the dust”). The difference is that proverbs are unchangeable sentences, while proverbial expressions permit alterations to fit the grammar of the context.
Another close construction is an allusion to a proverb, such as "The new boss will probably fire some of the old staff, you know what they say about a 'new broom'," alluding to the proverb "The new broom will sweep clean."
Typical stylistic features of proverbs (as Shirley Arora points out in her article, The Perception of Proverbiality (1984)) are:
- Alliteration (Forgive and forget)
- Parallelism (Nothing ventured, nothing gained)
- Rhyme (When the cat is away, the mice will play)
- Ellipsis (Once bitten, twice shy)
- kan mana baala, a’laa gaala (“A leaf at home, but a camel elsewhere"; somebody who has a big reputation among those who do not know him well.)
Internal features that can be found quite frequently include:
- Hyperbole (All is fair in love and war)
- Paradox (For there to be peace there must first be war)
- Personification (Hunger is the best cook)
To make the respective statement more general most proverbs are based on a metaphor. Further typical features of the proverb are its shortness (average: seven words), and the fact that its author is generally unknown (otherwise it would be a quotation).
In the article “Tensions in Proverbs: More Light on International Understanding,” Joseph Raymond comments on what common Russian proverbs from the 18th and 19th centuries portray: Potent antiauthoritarian proverbs reflected tensions between the Russian people and the Czar. The rollickingly malicious undertone of these folk verbalizations constitutes what might be labeled a ‘paremiological revolt.’ To avoid openly criticizing a given authority or cultural pattern, folk take recourse to proverbial expressions which voice personal tensions in a tone of generalized consent. Thus, personal involvement is linked with public opinion Proverbs that speak to the political disgruntlement include: “When the Czar spits into the soup dish, it fairly bursts with pride”; “If the Czar be a rhymester, woe be to the poets”; and “The hen of the Czarina herself does not lay swan’s eggs.” While none of these proverbs state directly, “I hate the Czar and detest my situation” (which would have been incredibly dangerous), they do get their points across.
Proverbs are found in many parts of the world, but some areas seem to have richer stores of proverbs than others (such as West Africa), while others have hardly any (North and South America) (Mieder 2004b:108,109).
Proverbs are often borrowed across lines of language, religion, and even time. For example, a proverb of the approximate form “No flies enter a mouth that is shut” is currently found in Spain, Ethiopia, and many countries in between. It is embraced as a true local proverb in many places and should not be excluded in any collection of proverbs because it is shared by the neighbors. However, though it has gone through multiple languages and millennia, the proverb can be traced back to an ancient Babylonian proverb (Pritchard 1958:146).
Proverbs are used by speakers for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are used as a way of saying something gently, in a veiled way (Obeng 1996). Other times, they are used to carry more weight in a discussion, a weak person is able to enlist the tradition of the ancestors to support his position, or even to argue a legal case. Proverbs can also be used to simply make a conversation/discussion more lively. In many parts of the world, the use of proverbs is a mark of being a good orator.
The study of proverbs has application in a number of fields. Clearly, those who study folklore and literature are interested in them, but scholars from a variety of fields have found ways to profitably incorporate the study proverbs. For example, they have been used to study abstract reasoning of children, acculturation of immigrants, intelligence, the differing mental processes in mental illness, cultural themes, etc. Proverbs have also been incorporated into the strategies of social workers, teachers, preachers, and even politicians. (For the deliberate use of proverbs as a propaganda tool by Nazis, see Mieder 1982.)
There are collections of sayings that offer instructions on how to play certain games, such as dominoes (Borajo et al. 1990) and the Oriental board game go (Mitchell 2001). However, these are not prototypical proverbs in that their application is limited to one domain.
One of the most important developments in the study of proverbs (as in folklore scholarship more generally) was the shift to more ethnographic appraoches in the 1960s. This approach attempted to explain proverb use in relation to the context of a speech event, rather than only in terms of the content and meaning of the proverb.
Another important development in scholarship on proverbs has been applying methods from cognitive science to understand the uses and effects of proverbs and proverbial metaphors in social relations.
Use in conversation
Proverbs are used in conversation by adults more than children, partially because adults have learned more proverbs than children. Also, using proverbs well is a skill that is developed over years. Proverbs, because they are indirect, allow a speaker to disagree or give advice in a way that may be less offensive. Studying actual proverb use in conversation, however, is difficult since the researcher must wait for proverbs to happen.
Use in literature
Many authors have used proverbs in their novels, also film makers. Probably the most famous user of proverbs in novels is J. R. R. Tolkien in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. These two books are notable for not only using proverbs as integral to the development of the characters and the story line, but also for creating proverbs. Among medieval literary texts, Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde plays a special role because Chaucer's usage seems to challenge the truth value of proverbs by exposing their epistemological unreliability.
In film, the best known example of rich proverb use is Forrest Gump, again known for both using and creating proverbs. Other studies of the use of proverbs in film include work by Kevin McKenna on the Russian film Aleksandr Nevsky, Haase's study of an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, and Elias Dominguez Barajas on the film Viva Zapata!.
Some authors have bent and twisted proverbs, creating anti-proverbs, for a vartiety of literary effects. For example, in the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling reshapes a standard English proverb into “It’s no good crying over spilt potion” and Dumbledore advises Harry not to “count your owls before they are delivered”. In a slightly different use of reshaping proverbs, in the Aubrey–Maturin series of historical naval novels by Patrick O'Brian, Capt. Jack Aubrey humorously mangles and mis-splices proverbs, such as “Never count the bear’s skin before it is hatched” and “There’s a good deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot.” 
Sources of proverbs
Proverbs come from a variety of sources. Some are, indeed, the result of people pondering, such as some by Confucius, Plato, etc. Others are taken from such diverse sources as songs, commercials, advertisements, movies, literature, etc. A number of the well known sayings of Jesus, Shakespeare, and others have become proverbs, though they were original at the time of their creation. Many proverbs are also based on stories, often the end of a story. For example, "Who will bell the cat?" is the end of a story about the mice planning how to be safe from the cat.
Grigorii Permjakov developed the concept of the core set of proverbs that full members of society know, what he called the "paremiological minimum" (1979). For example, an adult American is expected to be familiar with "Birds of a feather flock together", part of the American paremiological minimum. However, an average adult American is not expected to know "Fair in the cradle, foul in the saddle", an old English proverb that is not part of the current American paremiological minimum. Two noted examples of attempts to establish a paremiological minimum in America are by Haas (2008) and Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil (1988). Studies of the paremiological minimum have been done for a limited number of languages, including Hungarian, Czech, Somali, and Esperanto.
Proverbs in visual form
From ancient times, people have recorded proverbs in visual form. This has been done in two ways. First, proverbs have been written to be displayed, oftentimes in a decorative manner, such as on pottery, cross-stitch, and quilts.
Secondly, proverbs have often been visually depicted in a variety of media, including paintings, etchings, and sculpture. Probably the most famous examples of this are the different paintings of Netherlandish Proverbs by the father and son Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, these paintings and their proverbial meanings being the subject a 2004 conference, which led to a published volume of studies (Mieder 2004a). Another famous painting depicting some proverbs and also idioms (leading to a series of paintings) is Proverbidioms by T. E. Breitenbach. A bibliography on proverbs in visual form has been prepared by Mieder and Sobieski (1999).
Proverbs in advertising
Proverbs are frequently used in advertising, often in slightly modified form. Ford once advertised its Thunderbird with, "One drive is worth a thousand words" (Mieder 2004b: 84). This is doubly interesting since the underlying proverb behind this, "One picture is worth a thousand words," was originally introduced into the English proverb repertoire in an ad for televisions (Mieder 2004b: 83).
A few of the many proverbs adapted and used in advertising include:
- "Live by the sauce, dine by the sauce" (Buffalo Wildwings)
- "At D & D Dogs, you can teach an old dog new tricks" (D & D Dogs)
- "If at first you don't succeed, you're using the wrong equipment" (John Deere)
- "A pfennig saved is a pfennig earned." (Volkswagen)
- "Not only absence makes the heart grow fonder." (Godiva chocolates)
Sources for proverb study
A seminal work in the study of proverbs is Archer Taylor's The Proverb, later republished with an index by Wolfgang Mieder (1985). A good introduction to the study of proverbs is Mieder's 2004 volume, Proverbs: A Handbook. Mieder has also published a series of bibliography volumes on proverb research, as well as a large number of articles and other books in the field. Stan Nussbaum has edited a large collection on proverbs of Africa, published on a CD, including reprints of out-of-print collections, original collections, and works on analysis, bibliography, and application of proverbs to Christian ministry (1998). Paczolay has compared proverbs across Europe and published a collection of similar proverbs in 55 languages (1997). Mieder edits an academic journal of proverb study, Proverbium (ISSN: 0743-782X). A volume containing articles on a wide variety of topics touching on proverbs was edited by Mieder and Alan Dundes (1994/1981).
- Book of proverbs
- List of proverbial phrases
- Old wives' tale
- Saw (saying)
- Wikiquote:English proverbs
- ^ a b "Proverbial Phrases from California", by Owen S. Adams, Western Folklore, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1949), pp. 95-116 doi:10.2307/1497581
- ^ J. Raymond. 1956. Tensions in Proverbs: More Light on International Understanding. Western Folklore 15.3, pg 153-154
- ^ John C. Messenger Jr. The Role of Proverbs in a Nigerian Judicial System. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology. 15:1 (Spring, 1959) pp. 64-73.
- ^ E. Ojo Arewa and Alan Dundes. Proverbs and the Ethnography of Speaking Folklore. American Anthropologist. 66: 6, Part 2: The Ethnography of Communication (Dec 1964), pp. 70-85. Richard Bauman and Neil McCabe. Proverbs in an LSD Cult. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 83, No. 329 (Jul. - Sep., 1970), pp. 318-324.
- ^ Richard P. Honeck. A proverb in mind: the cognitive science of proverbial wit and wisdom. Routledge, 1997.
- ^ Elias Dominguez Baraja. 2010. The function of proverbs in discourse. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.
- ^ Michael Stanton. 1996. Advice is a dangerous gift. Proverbium 13: 331-345
- ^ Trokhimenko, Olga. 2003. “If You Sit on the Doorstep Long Enough, You Will Think of Something”: The Function of Proverbs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.” Proverbium (journal)20: 367-378.
- ^ Richard Utz, "Sic et Non: Zu Funktion und Epistemologie des Sprichwortes bei Geoffrey Chaucer,” Das Mittelalter: Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung 2.2 (1997), 31-43.
- ^ Stephen David Winick. 1998. "The proverb process: Intertextuality and proverbial innovation in popular culture". University of Pennsylvania dissertation.
- ^ Kevin McKenna. 2009. “Proverbs and the Folk Tale in the Russian Cinema: The Case of Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Classic Aleksandr Nevsky.” The Proverbial «Pied Piper» A Festschrift Volume of Essays in Honor of Wolfgang Mieder on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. by Kevin McKenna, pp. 277-292. New York, Bern: Peter Lang.
- ^ Donald Haase. 1990. Is seeing believing? Proverbs and the adaptation of a fairy tale. Proverbium 7: 89-104.
- ^ Elias Dominguez Baraja. 2010. The function of proverbs in discourse, p. 66, 67. Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton.
- ^ Heather A. Haas. 2011. The Wisdom of Wizards—and Muggles and Squibs: Proverb Use in the World of Harry Potter. Journal of American Folklore 124(492): 38.
- ^ Jan Harold Brunvand. 2004. “The Early Bird Is Worth Two in the Bush”: Captain Jack Aubrey’s Fractured Proverbs. What Goes Around Comes Around: The Circulation of Proverbs in Contemporary Life, Kimberly J. Lau, Peter Tokofsky, Stephen D. Winick, (eds.), pp. 152-170. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. 
- ^ George Bryan and Wolfgang Mieder. 1997. The Proverbial Charles Dickens. New York: Peter Lang
- ^ George B. Bryan. 1993. Black Sheep, Red Herrings, and Blue Murder: The Proverbial Agatha Christie. Bern: Peter Lang.
- ^ George B. Bryan and Wolfgang Meider. 1994. Heinemann Educational Books.
- ^ Katalin Vargha, Anna T. Litovkina. 2007. Proverb is as proverb does: A preliminary analysis of a survey on the use of Hungarian proverbs and anti-proverbs. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 52.1: 135-155.
- ^ http://ucnk.ff.cuni.cz/doc/parmin.rtf
- ^ [dead link]
- ^ Fielder, Sabine. 1999. Phraseology in planned languages. Language Problems and Language Planning 23.2: 175-87, see p. 178.
- ^ MacDowell, Marsha and Wolfgang Mieder. “‘When Life Hands You Scraps, Make a Quilt’: Quiltmakers and the Tradition of Proverbial Inscriptions.” Proverbium, 27 (2010), 113-172.
- ^ Wolfgang Mieder and Barbara Mieder. 1977. Tradition and innovation: Proverbs in advertising. Journal of Popular Culture 11: 308-319.
- ^ om een reactie te plaatsen! (2010-08-13). "GEICO Commercial - Bird in Hand". YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mScDoJ2wnug. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- ^ om een reactie te plaatsen!. "Is the Pen Mightier? - GEICO Commercial". YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcZd-ql7t1I. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
- Bailey, Clinton. 2004. A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev. Yale University Press.
- Borajo, Daniel, Juan Rios, M. Alicia Perez, and Juan Pazos. 1990. Dominoes as a domain where to use proverbs as heuristics. Data & Knowledge Engineering 5:129-137.
- Dominguez Barajas, Elias. 2010. The function of proverbs in discourse. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Grzybek, Peter. "Proverb." Simple Forms: An Encyclopaedia of Simple Text-Types in Lore and Literature, ed. Walter Koch. Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1994. 227-41.
- Haas, Heather. 2008. Proverb familiarity in the United States: Cross-regional comparisons of the paremiological minimum. Journal of American Folklore 121.481: pp. 319–347.
- Hirsch, E. D., Joseph Kett, Jame Trefil. 1988. The dictionary of cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 1982. Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore. The Journal of American Folklore 95, No. 378, pp. 435–464.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 1982; 1990; 1993. International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, with supplements. New York: Garland Publishing.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 1994. Wise Words. Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 2001. International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. Supplement III (1990–2000). Bern, New York: Peter Lang.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 2004a. The Netherlandish Proverbs. (Supplement series of Proverbium, 16.) Burlington: University of Vermont.
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 2004b. Proverbs: A Handbook. (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks). Greenwood Press.
- Mieder, Wolfgang and Alan Dundes. 1994. The wisdom of many: essays on the proverb. (Originally published in 1981 by Garland.) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Mieder, Wolfgang and Anna Tothne Litovkina. 2002. Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs. DeProverbio.
- Mieder, Wolfgang and Janet Sobieski. 1999. Proverb iconography: an international bibliography. Bern: Peter Lang.
- Mitchell, David. 2001. Go Proverbs (reprint of 1980). ISBN 0-9706193-1-6. Slate and Shell.
- Nussbaum, Stan. 1998. The Wisdom of African Proverbs (CD-ROM). Colorado Springs: Global Mapping International.
- Obeng, S. G. 1996. The Proverb as a Mitigating and Politeness Strategy in Akan Discourse. Anthropological Linguistics 38(3), 521-549.
- Paczolay, Gyula. 1997. European Proverbs in 55 Languages. Veszpre’m, Hungary.
- Permiakov, Grigorii. 1979. From proverb to Folk-tale: Notes on the general theory of cliche. Moscow: Nauka.
- Pritchard, James. 1958. The Ancient Near East, vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Raymond, Joseph. 1956. Tension in proverbs: more light on international understanding. Western Folklore 15.3:153-158.
- Taylor, Archer. 1985. The Proverb and an index to "The Proverb", with an Introduction and Bibliography by Wolfgang Mieder. Bern: Peter Lang.
Serious websites related to the study of proverbs, and some that list regional proverbs:
- Proverbium.org,a definitive reference for proverbs, idioms and historic quotes]
- Associação Internacional de Paremiologia / International Association of Paremiology (AIP-IAP)
- Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Proverbs
- De Proverbio (electronic journal of international proverb studies)
- Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages: 20,500 selections from the classic reference work
- Particularly for Biblical studies
- Particularly for proverbs in Africa
- Folklore, particularly from the Baltic region, but many articles on proverbs
- Folk Sayings from Italy (see the thematic list on the left hand side of the page)
- Proverbial Wisdom (NPR)
- Proverbs and Proverbial Materials in the Old Icelandic Sagas
A bibliography of first edition publications (and modern editions where they ease understanding) of proverb collections:
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