A Historical And Contextual Proverb Study Based On Books, Archives, And Databases



Sixty years ago the American paremiologist Richard Jente (1888-1952) published his enlightening article on “German Proverbs from the Orient” (1933) in which he attempted to prove that certain German proverbs were not indigenous to Germany but rather had their origin among the Arabic or Turkish if not even the Asiatic people.1 Concerning the popular German proverb “Der Apfel f§llt nicht weit vom Stamm” (i.e., “The apple does not fall far from the tree”), he mentions Hieronymus Megiserus’ early comparative proverb collection Paroemiologia polyglottos (1605) as the best proof for an eastern source of this proverb, citing the Turkish text “Iemisch agatsdan irak dushmas” as a direct equivalent of the German “Der Apffel fellt nicht weit vom Baum”.2 He also refers to a number of Eastern and Western European proverbs which are more or less identical to this proverb, but it must be stressed that all of them are of later dates. Even more important, however, is the fact that Jente himself points out that the earliest German citation stems from 1582 when it is quoted by Johann Fischart in his novel Geschichtsklitterung precisely as “Der Apffel fellt nicht weit vom Baum”.3 By 1585 the proverb appears in Michael Neander’s important German proverb collection Ethice vetus et sapiens as “Der Apffel fellt nicht gerne weit vom Baume”4 And by 1598 the German chapbook entitled Das Lalebuch (Die Schildbºrger) includes the common variant “Der Apffel felt nicht weit vom Stammen”, where the “Baum” (tree) has been replaced by “Stamm(en)” (stem).5 The German proverb is thus well established by the end of the 16th century, and it appears with considerable frequency in later collections and literary works of the German language right up to the present day.

Jente actually refers to a fourth early reference which the preacher Johann Mathesius included in an edition of his popular Bergpostilla sermon collection from 1587. But it is here where Jente commits a serious oversight. The first edition of the Bergpostilla was already published in 1562, and its second sermon, in which the proverb appears, is clearly indicated there as having been given in 1554! Mathesius connects this metaphorical proverb with a second text that reiterates the proverbial wisdom of heredity: “Der apffel felt nicht weyt vom baum / vnd das kalb gereth gewoenigklich nach der kue” (The apple does not fall far from the tree, and the calf usually resembles the cow).6 This reference predates the Turkish equivalent from 1605 by fifty years, and unless someone can in fact produce proof of an earlier Turkish reference, it is not plausible to speak of a Turkish origin of this proverb.7 It must also be remembered that the year 1554 represents merely the first written reference of this proverb. Doubtlessly it was in oral use several decades before that date, placing its German origin perhaps at the beginning of the 16th century.

There is, of course, yet another problem to consider before taking a closer look at how and when this German proverb has made its way to the United States. Already Jente refers to its inclusion in a polyglot proverb collection, and it must be stressed that it appears in many such collections for numerous European languages. And yet, the proverb cannot be found in classical Greek and Latin sources or among the Biblical proverbs. When a proverb, or at least very similar equivalents, is known in multiple language, it is often possible to trace it back to one common origin. A good example would be the proverb “Big fish eat little fish” that exists in most Indo-European languages and which has been traced back to the Greek poet Hesiod.8 But the “apple” proverb under discussion here does not even go back to that stock of rather international proverbs which had their source in medieval Latin. In fact, the closest Latin proverb that can be found is “Non procul a proprio stipite poma cadunt” (Apples do not fall far from their tree). But it appears only in 1660 in Jeremias Simon’s Gnomologia proverbialis which as other Latin proverb collections published in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries contains many loan translations from the German.9 So where do the Albanian, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Rumanian, Russian, Slovakian, Swedish, Yiddish, etc. parallels come from? The “apple” proverb appears in numerous comparative, national, and regional (dialect) proverb collections,10 but the first references of these texts all stem from considerably later dates. Even the Dutch identical version “De appel valt niet verre van den stam (boom)” has been recorded no earlier than 1788, and there appears to be no reason why this text should not be considered as a loan translation from the German original.11 And why should the German proverb not have been loan translated into the other languages as well? Or might we have the case of polygenesis here for once? These questions must be answered by paremiologists of each national language. However, as long as no earlier historical dates than that of the German proverb from 1554 can be found for any other language,12 there is no sound reason to deny the claim that the quite international proverb of “The apple does not fall far from the stem” is of German origin.

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405