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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.
Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible (including, but not limited to the Book of Proverbs) and medieval Latin (aided by the work of Erasmus) have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Europe, although almost every culture has examples of its own.
The study of proverbs is called paremiology (from Greek παροιμία - paroimía, "proverb, maxim, saw") 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”) and proverbial interrogatives (“Does a chicken have lips?”) .
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:
Similarly, from Tajik:
Notice that in both of these cases of complete assonance, the vowel is <a>, the most common vowel in human languages.
Internal features that can be found quite frequently include:
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).
When proverbs are borrowed from one language into another, sometimes it is possible to make predictions as to which language borrowed from another (though this should be done with caution). As an example of being able to predict the direction of borrowing for a proverb, consider the form of a proverb "Of mothers and water none is bad," in Amharic and Oromo, two large languages of Ethiopia:
The Oromo version uses poetic features, such as the initial ha in both clauses with the final -aa in the same word, and both clauses ending with -an. Also, both clauses are built with the vowel a in the first and last words, but the vowel i in the one syllable central word. In contrast, the Amharic version of the proverb shows little evidence of sound-based art. This suggests that the Oromo version of the proverb is original and the Amharic is borrowed. (However, it is possible there are other languages involved in this transmission, also.)
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 approaches 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.
Proverbs in various languages are found with a wide variety of grammatical structures. In English. for example, we find the following structures (in addition to others):
However, people will often quote only a fraction of a proverb to invoke an entire proverb, e.g. "All is fair" instead of "All is fair in love and war", and "A rolling stone" for "A rolling stone gathers no moss."
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. Additionally, children have not mastered the patterns of metaphorical expression that are invoked in proverb use. 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.
Many authors have used proverbs in their writings. 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. Also, C. S. Lewis created a dozen proverbs in The Horse and His Boy. These three 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.
Proverbs have been the inspiration for titles of books: The Bigger they Come by Erle Stanley Gardner and Birds of a Feather (several books with this title). They have also been used as the titles of plays: Baby with the Bathwater by Christopher Durang, Dog Eat Dog by Mary Gallagher, and The Dog in the Manger by Charles Hale Hoyt. Some stories have been written with a proverb overtly as an opening, such as "A stitch in time saves nine" at the beginning of "Kitty's Class Day", one of Louisa May Alcott's Proverb Stories. Other times, a proverb appears at the end of a story, summing up a moral to the story, frequently found in Aesop's Fables, such as "Heaven helps those who help themselves" from Hercules and the Wagoner.
Proverbs have also been used strategically by poets. Sometimes proverbs (or portions of them or anti-proverbs) are used for titles, such as "A bird in the bush" by Lord Kennet and "The blind leading the blind" by Lisa Mueller. Sometimes, proverbs are important parts of poems, such as Paul Muldoon's "Symposium", which begins "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it hold its nose to the grindstone and hunt with the hounds. Every dog has a stitch in time..."
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.”
Because proverbs are so much a part of the language and culture, authors have sometimes used proverbs in historical fiction effectively, but anachronistically, before the proverb was actually known. For example, the novel Ramage and the Rebels, by Dudley Pope is set in approximately 1800. Captain Ramage reminds his adversary "You are supposed to know that it is dangerous to change horses in midstream" (p. 259), with another allusion to the same proverb three pages later. However, the proverb about changing horses in midstream is reliably dated to 1864, so the proverb could not have been known or used by a character from that period.
On the non-fiction side, proverbs have also been used by authors. Some have been used as the basis for a title, e.g. I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self by April Lane Benson. Many authors have cited proverbs as epigrams at the beginning of their articles, e.g. "'If you want to dismantle a hedge, remove one thorn at a time' Somali proverb" in an article on peacemaking in Somalia.
There are often proverbs that contradict each other, such as "Look before you leap" and "He who hesitates is lost." These have been labeled "counter proverbs"  When there are such counter proverbs, each can be used in its own appropriate situation, and neither is intended to be a universal truth.
The concept of "counter proverb" is more about pairs of contradictory proverbs than about the use of proverbs to counter each other in an argument. For example, the following pair are counter proverbs from Ghana "It is the patient person who will milk a barren cow" and "The person who would milk a barren cow must prepare for a kick on the forehead"  The two contradict each other, whether they are used in an argument or not (though indeed they were used in an argument). But the same work contains an appendix with many examples of proverbs used in arguing for contrary positions, but proverbs that are not inherently contradictory, (pp. 157-171), such as "One is better off with hope of a cow's return than news of its death" countered by "If you don't know a goat [before its death] you mock at its skin". Though this pair was used in a contradictory way in a conversation, they are not a set of "counter proverbs".
"Counter proverbs" are not the same as a "paradoxical proverb", a proverb that contains a seeming paradox.
A film that makes rich use of proverbs is Forrest Gump, 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!.
In the case of Forrest Gump, the screenplay by Eric Roth had more proverbs than the novel by Winston Groom, but for The Harder They Come, the reverse is true, where the novel derived from the movie by Michael Thelwell has many more proverbs than the movie.
Éric Rohmer, the French film director, directed a series of films, the "Comedies and Proverbs", where each film was based on a proverb: The Aviator's Wife, The Perfect Marriage, Pauline at the Beach, Full Moon in Paris (the film's proverb was invented by Rohmer himself: "The one who has two wives loses his soul, the one who has two houses loses his mind."), The Green Ray, Boyfriends and Girlfriends.
Movie titles based on proverbs include Murder will out. The title of an award-winning Turkish film, Three Monkeys, invokes a proverb, though the title does not fully quote it.
Proverbs are often poetic in and of themselves, making them ideally suited for adapting into songs. Proverbs have been used in music from opera to country to hip-hop. Examples include Elvis Presley's Easy come, easy go, Harold Robe's Never swap horses when you're crossing a stream, Arthur Gillespie's Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Bob Dylan's Like a rolling stone, Cher's Apples don't fall far from the tree. Lynn Anderson made famous a song full of proverbs, I never promised you a rose garden (written by Joe South). In choral music, we find Michael Torke's Proverbs for female voice and ensemble. A number of Blues musicians have also used proverbs extensively., The frequent use of proverbs in Country music has led to published studies of proverbs in this genre., The Reggae artist Jahdan Blakkamoore has recorded a piece titled Proverbs Remix. The opera Maldobrìe contains careful use of proverbs. An extreme example of many proverbs used in composing songs include Bruce Springsteen performed a song almost entirely composed of proverbs. The Mighty Diamonds recorded a song called simply "Proverbs".
In addition to proverbs being used in songs themselves, some rock bands have used parts of proverbs as their names, such as the Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Mothers of Invention, Feast or Famine, Of Mice and Men. There have been at least two groups that called themselves "The Proverbs". In addition, many albums have been named with allusions to proverbs, such as Spilt milk (a title used by Jellyfish and also Kristina Train), The more things change by Machine Head, Silk purse by Linda Rondstadt, Another day, another dollar by DJ Scream Roccett, The blind leading the naked by Vicious Femmes, What's good for the goose is good for the gander by Bobby Rush, Resistance is Futile by Steve Coleman, Murder will out by Fan the Fury. The proverb Feast or famine has been used as an album title by Chuck Ragan, Reef the Lost Cauze, Indiginus, and DaVinci. The band Splinter Group released an album titled When in Rome, Eat Lions. The band Downcount used a proverb for the name of their tour, Come and take it.
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, Nepali, and Esperanto.
From ancient times, people around the world 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, murals, kangas (East African women's wraps), and quilts.
Secondly, proverbs have often been visually depicted in a variety of media, including paintings, etchings, and sculpture. Jakob Jordaens painted a plaque with a proverb about drunkeness above a drunk man wearing a crown, titled The King Drinks. Probably the most famous examples of depicting proverbs are the different versions of the paintings Netherlandish Proverbs by the father and son Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, the proverbial meanings of these paintings being the subject of 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 additional paintings) is Proverbidioms by T. E. Breitenbach. Corey Barksdale has even produced a book of paintings with specific proverbs and pithy quotations. The British artist Chris Gollon has painted a major work entitled "Big Fish Eat Little Fish]", a title echoing Bruegel's painting Big Fishes Eat Little Fishes.
Sometimes well-known proverbs are pictured on objects, without a text actually quoting the proverb, such as the three wise monkeys who remind us "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". When the proverb is well known, viewers are able to recognize the proverb and understand the image appropriately.
A bibliography on proverbs in visual form has been prepared by Mieder and Sobieski (1999).
Some artists have used proverbs and anti-proverbs for titles of their paintings, alluding to a proverb rather than picturing it. For example, Vivienne LeWitt painted a piece titled "If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?", which shows neither foot nor shoe, but a woman counting her money as she contemplates different options when buying vegetables.
There is a growing interest in deliberately using proverbs to achieve goals, usually to support and promote changes in society. On the negative side, this was deliberately done by the Nazis  On the more positive side, proverbs have also been used for positive purposes. For example, proverbs have been used for teaching foreign languages at various levels., In addition, proverbs have been used for public health promotion, such as promoting breast feeding with a shawl bearing a Swahili proverb “Mother’s milk is sweet”, also for helping people manage diabetes, for to combat prostitution, and for community development The most active field deliberately using proverbs is Christian ministry, where Joseph G. Healey and others have deliberately worked to catalyze the collection of proverbs from smaller languages and the application of them in a wide variety of church-related ministries, resulting in publications of collections and applications,. This attention to proverbs by those in Christian ministries is not new, many pioneering proverb collections having been collected and published by Christian workers. U.S. Navy Captain Edward Zellem pioneered the use of Afghan proverbs as a positive relationship-building tool during the war in Afghanistan, and in 2012 he published two bilingual collections of Afghan proverbs in Dari and English.
Though much proverb scholarship is done by literary scholars, those studying the human mind have used proverbs in a variety of studies. One of the earliest studies in this field is the Proverbs Test by Gorham, developed in 1956. A similar test is being prepared in German. Proverbs have been used to evaluate dementia, study the cognitive development of children, measure the results of brain injuries, and study how the mind processes figurative language.
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:
The GEICO company has created a series of television ads that are built around proverbs, such as "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush": and "The pen is mightier than the sword", and "Pigs may fly/When pigs fly."
Use of proverbs in advertising is not limited to the English language. Tatira has given a number of examples of proverbs used in advertising in Zimbabwe. However, unlike the examples given above in English, all of which are anti-proverbs, Tatira's examples are standard proverbs. Where the English proverbs above are meant to make a potential customer smile, in one of the Zimbabwean examples "both the content of the proverb and the fact that it is phrased as a proverb secure the idea of a secure time-honored relationship between the company and the individuals". When newer buses were imported, owners of older buses compensated by painting a traditional proverb on the sides of their buses, "Going fast does not assure safe arrival".
A seminal work in the study of proverbs is Archer Taylor's The Proverb (1931), later republished by Wolfgang Mieder with Taylor's Index included (1985/1934). 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).
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Serious websites related to the study of proverbs, and some that list regional proverbs:
A bibliography of first edition publications (and modern editions where they ease understanding) of proverb collections: