Thoughts on the Universality of Proverbs

In a nod to my approaching seventieth birthday, I thought I’d take a break from municipal matters and talk about an aspect of language that has long intrigued me: proverbs.

Growing up in a house in which the Bible was regarded as the one true guide to life, I was introduced early on to the Book of Proverbs as a source of advice and admonition (most often the latter, I’m sorry to say). Some of these I heard from my parents several times a day, so naturally they have stuck with me:
“A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
“The way of transgressors is hard.”
“A wise son maketh a glad father; but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.”
“A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
“A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches”
“The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
“A living dog is better than a dead lion.” (OK, that one is from Ecclesiastes; I guess there were just too many proverbs to fit into one book.)

Once I started school, of course, I began encountering all the traditional proverbs:
“Don’t cry over spilt milk.”
“Haste makes waste.”
“A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
“Great minds think alike.”
“Actions speak louder than words.”
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
“Don’t put the cart before the horse.”

Proverbs are often said to capture the common-sense wisdom of ordinary people, and that is no doubt true, but what do you do when you’re offered conflicting advice? On the one hand, “Many hands make light work,” but then again, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Not exactly a reliable guide for the perplexed. Or what about “A rolling stone gathers no moss?” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? To my child’s mind, “gathering moss” sounded a lot like “harvesting wheat.” Was I being advised to stay where I was and work hard collecting what was readiest to hand? And then there were ones I found inscrutable: “Still waters run deep,” not to mention “Many a mickle makes a muckle.”

Many proverbs are so familiar that we often quote only part of them: “A stitch in time…” “Too many cooks…” “All work and no play…”

A college course in Russian history and the chance purchase of a small book of Russian proverbs introduced me to some old proverbs in new guises, and some that were entirely new and different:
“In this world, not everyone with a long knife is a cook.”
“The load is light that rests on another’s shoulders.”
“Hunger is the best cook.”
“The church is near, but the road is icy; the tavern is far, but I’ll walk very carefully.”
“You won’t weep for your hair when they’ve cut off your head.”
“If you’re afraid of wolves, don’t go into the forest.”
“The first pancake is always lumpy.”
“If you chase after two rabbits, you won’t catch even one.”

In recent years, as a volunteer in the library’s ESL program, I’ve had my interest in proverbs rekindled by working with language learners from China, Korea, and Russia. It was a fascinating exercise to present the group with, say, a dozen proverbs and then discuss the equivalents that existed in their own languages. (It appears that there are between 300 and 1000 proverbial expressions in nearly any language that are so frequently encountered as to be considered essential to mastery of that language). Here are some other memorable proverbs from around the world:
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” (African)
“One rat dropping spoils the whole bowl of rice.” (Chinese)
“He who has been bitten by a snake jumps at the sight of a rope on the path.” (Chinese)
“You can’t carry two watermelons in one hand.” (Armenian)
“The comfort of the bed is not experienced by the mattress.” (Tamil)
“When the fox starts preaching, look to your hens.” (Basque)

In America, some sports idioms have acquired the weight of proverbs:
“Keep your eye on the ball.”
“There is no ‘I’ in team.”
“Don’t hog the ball.”

Do you have any favorite proverbs, whether common or rare? Are there ones that you find yourself using only to hear the voice of the parent or grandparent from whom you learned them? Do you find yourself feeling that this modern age needs some new proverbs? (After all, how many of us have had to hitch a horse to a cart?) If so, I’d be delighted to hear your suggestions!

Rising septuagenarian; 40-year resident of Newton, though a Northern Californian by birth. Married, with two Millennial daughters who are products of the Newton school system (Countryside, Brown, NSHS).

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Bill RoesnerLynne LeBlancJohn KootSallee Lipshutz Recent comment authors
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Sallee Lipshutz

What a delightful column, John! It raises two sets of observations I’ve made about proverbs:
1) The rudimentary awareness of a computer, albeit years ago, to capture the subtle meaning that a proverb provided in one language as it was translating the words from one language to another and then back to the original language. I was given the result of the returned to English proverb after the computer had translated it from its original English to Russian and then back. I was then tasked with figuring out the original English proverb.
See how you and the other readers here can do. I will give the answer, if asked…but I strongly suspect someone who reads here will figure it out:
“The whiskey is good, but the meat is rotten!”

2) The Mortimer Snerd philosophy of life: Edgar Bergen, famed ventriloquist of yore, played straight man to his wise dummy (oxymoron?) who finished the proverbs partly offered to him:
Bergen: “A bird in the hand…”
Snerd: “tickles.”
Bergen: “A new broom…”
Snerd: “is expensive.”

By the way, Happy Birthday!

Lynne LeBlanc

Fun column, John, and I liked hearing your perspective as an ESL volunteer.

Two “sayings” come to my mind. Our two sons were avid “The Simpsons” fan, so by osmosis we became fans as well. One Simpsonism (attributed to Ned Flanders) that is oft repeated in our household: “I tried nothing, man, and I’m all out of ideas.”

A second saying that we banter around fairly frequently: “No good deed goes unpunished” – as in the dishes (or dinner, or chores) are done, but someone complains that they are not done quite well enough!

Sallee Lipshutz

I forgot another one of those translations from English to another language and back to English:
“Invisible, insane.”

Bill Roesner
Bill Roesner

An old boss of mine, referring at the time to a particular difficult client of his, resonates often for me, especially given our current political climate here in Newton,.. ” When you are in the cage with the gorilla, you do what the gorilla wants to do.”

Sallee Lipshutz

By the way…”Invisible, insane” is derived from the re-translation to English of the translation to Russian of the Proverb: “Out of sight, out of mind!”