Cambridge supplies many labels for proverbial expressions — adage, dictum, maxim, motto, saw, precept, truism, aphorism, apothegm, epigram, and the word proverb itself.
These terms carry the idea of traditional wisdom handed down through the generations. They’re found in every culture, every country.
Often, identical messages occur in the proverbs of various cultures. For example: “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” (English); “If you put a silk suit on a goat, it’s still a goat” (Irish); “Dress a monkey in silk, and it is still a monkey” (Argentinian).
We usually can’t discover a proverb’s origin. Nevertheless, the Bible’s Book of Proverbs is attributed to King Solomon. Also, a Middle English set of proverbs is apparently the wisdom of Alfred the Great.
Some of Solomon’s proverbs: “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due.” “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth.”
These are from Alfred: “Without wisdom, wealth is worthless.” “After evil comes good.” “It is hard to row against a flowing sea.”
The Chinese have more proverbs than any other culture. Here are a few: “The Great Wall stands; the builders are gone.” “Be slow to promise, quick to perform.” “One who picks roses must abide the thorns.” Proverbs proliferate in literature. The same one often occurs in works published centuries apart. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote, “It is not good a sleeping hound to wake.” Years later, Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Several proverbs occur in rhyme: “Birds of a feather flock together.” “When in doubt, do nowt.” “What cannot be cured must be endured.”
Others employ alliteration: “Look before you leap.” “A fool at forty is a fool indeed.” “A light heart lives long.”
The First Nations have scores of wonderful proverbs. Here’s some Ojibwa wisdom: “No one can represent your conscience.” This one is Cree: “Never sit while your elders stand.” From the Mohawks: “When an elder speaks, be silent and listen.” This one is Sioux: “A people without a history is like a wind over buffalo grass.”
Although most proverbs originated in antiquity, new ones are still emerging. The following are considered modern proverbs: “Another day, another dollar.” “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” “Easy come, easy go.” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “Garbage in, garbage out.”
Are proverbs clichés? No. Their persistent messages indicate a way of using words to teach. So, let’s look at some world-wide wisdom:
• Old age is a thousand headaches (Arabian);
• A silk dress doesn’t mean clean undergarments (Haitian);
• If you decide to eat a dog, eat a fat one (Ugandan);
• Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms (Russian);
• True patience consists of bearing the unbearable (Japanese);
• Better blind of eye than blind of heart (Hebrew);
• Slander makes friends part (Swedish);
• Better be alone than in bad company (German);
• Favour your own first, then others (Peruvian).
Proverb (13th century) is from the Latin, proverbium (a saying supporting a point). Proverbium is from pro (on behalf of) and verbum (word).