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A proverb, (from the 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.
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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
Subgenres include proverbial comparisons (“as busy as a bee”), proverbial interrogatives (“Does a chicken have lips?”) and twin formulas (“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.
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 1700s and 1800s 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 2004:108,109).
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. 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 saying that give suggestions for how to play 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.
Sources for proverb study
For those interested in further study of proverbs, a number of sources are available. A seminal work in the field is Archer Taylor's The Proverb, later republished together 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. For those interested in proverbs of Africa, 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). For those interested in comparing proverbs across Europe, Paczolay has published a collection of similar proverbs in 55 languages (1997). Mieder edits an academic journal of proverb study, Proverbium (journal) (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).
There are some serious websites related to the study of proverbs (in addition to those that list proverbs from various areas):
- aDailyProverb http://www.adailyproverb.com
- Associação Internacional de Paremiologia / International Association of Paremiology (AIP-IAP) http://www.aip-iap.org/en
- Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Proverbs http://www.colloquium-proverbs.org/
- General bibliography: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Discourse/Proverbs/Bibliography.html
- English and Irish proverbs: Largest collection of English sayings and proverbs
- Chinese sayings: best Chinese proverbs
- Particularly for Biblical studies: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/20-Proverbs/Text/Bibliography/Proverbs-Bibliography.htm
- Particularly for proverbs in Africa: http://afriprov.org
- Folklore, particularly from the Baltic region, but many articles on proverbs: http://www.folklore.ee/Folklore/
- Folk Sayings from Italy (see the thematic list on the left hand side of the page) http://www.italyrevisited.org/
- Proverbial Wisdom (NPR) http://www.onpointradio.org/2008/09/proverbial-wisdom
- Proverbs and Proverbial Materials in the Old Icelandic Sagas: http://www.usask.ca/english/icelanders/
- 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.
- Grzybek, Peter. "Proverb." Simple Forms: An Encyclopaedia of Simple Text-Types in Lore and Literature, ed. Walter Koch. Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1994. 227-41.
- 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. 2004. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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