IT’S EASY to forget that widespread literacy is a relatively recent development in the course of human history, But the acquired wisdom of the race has been passed down orally for many centuries, often through
Consulting the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I learned that a proverb is a succinct and pithy saying that is in general use and expresses commonly held ideas and beliefs, and that proverbs are part of every spoken language.
It seems that a proverb is often found with variations in many different parts of the world. One of the earliest English proverb collections, The Proverbs of Alfred, dates from the 12th century, and in North America the best-known collection is probably Poor Richard’s, an almanac published by Benjamin Franklin in 1732–57.
And, of course, Proverbs is a book of the Bible’s Old Testament. At the top of the list of 10 best known Chinese proverbs is this familiar one:
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
IT TURNS out that proverbs are hard to distinguish from clichés, maxims, slogans, and the like.
From the worldwide website, cogweb.ucla.edu, I read, “Rather than legislate necessary or sufficient conditions for Proverbian citizenship, we propose to issue residence permits to all brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice.”
I like that idea, because that covers a lot of sayings I have heard from an early age, sayings that don’t turn up on the “All Great Quotes” list of more than 100 proverbs.
WHEN MY mother wanted to express the idea that different folks have different opinions, she would say: “That’s what makes poor land sell.”
And it was from her generation that I heard this description of a really bad happening: “I’d just as soon be in hell with my back broke.”
On television talk shows I have recently heard these two formulations: “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery.”
I assume that brain surgery is the older.
Some proverbs deal with the same situation, as “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” and “Marry a handsome man and you marry trouble.”
Then there are those that say the same thing in different words, as: “The devil can cite scriptures to suit his purposes.” and “Even the devil can swear on a stack of Bibles” and “Even the devil was an angel in the beginning.”
Every cook can testify to the truth of the proverb that “A watched pot never boils.”
You’ve no doubt heard it said that you should “Let sleeping dogs lie,” but, in a related concept, we’re told that “Barking dogs seldom bite.”
FROM THE ever-useful Wikipedia website we learn that proverbs in various languages utilize a wide variety of grammatical structures. In English there are these, among others:
Imperative, negative - Don’t beat a dead horse.
Imperative, positive - Look before you leap.
Parallel phrases - Garbage in, garbage out.
Rhetorical question - Is the Pope Catholic?
Declarative sentence - Birds of a feather flock together.