The Collection And Study Of Proverbs

ISSN 1323-4633
Volume 2 – Number 2 – 1996

THE COLLECTION AND STUDY OF PROVERBS *

ARCHER TAYLOR

Workers in the field of proverbs are comparatively few in number and the tasks they undertake offer many difficulties. The necessary books are often hard to obtain; the languages in which they are written may not be easy to read; and the problems are likely to be hard to solve because an essential bit of information is lacking. Nevertheless, studies in proverbs can be said to be flourishing. I shall not on this occasion compare the study of proverbs with the study of ballads or tales, but I suggest that this comparison is very instructive. I begin at once with comment on the often repeated call for a definition of a proverb. I reply that this is “Easier said than done,” and find its difficulties admirably discussed by Bartlett Jere Whiting.[1]

More than thirty years ago I commented on the task in The Proverb (1931) and gave more than two hundred pages of definition, description, and examples. I am as doubtful today as I was then about the usefulness of a brief definition. Defining a proverb seems to me to be an altogether different matter from defining a fox or a rose. The fact that those forms with which the proverb is most readily associated–for example, the ballad, the tale, and the riddle–seem to be equally difficult to define deserves study for its own sake. I have just been reading a report of a conference of a dozen specialists in ballad studies who gave much of their time to discussing definitions and agreed to leave matters where they found them. For more than four thousand years collectors have included in their collections a great variety of traditional materials and have thus shown that “proverb” means more than one kind of traditional saying. In an interesting summary of the Sumerian proverbs that seem most nearly akin to modern forms, “… the university scribes understood [the word “proverb”] to mean any form of folk speech: (1) precepts, (2) maxims, (3) truisms, (4) apothegms and adages, (5) paradoxes, (6) bywords and taunts, as well as (7) compliments, (8) wishes and toasts, (9) blason populaire, (10) short fables, (11) anecdotes, (12) characters, and (13) “short prayers.”[2] It is by no means certain that the Sumerian scribes included in their collections, which were largely for school use, all the varieties they knew. In Sumerian use, for example, such English weather proverbs as “Rain before seven; clear before eleven” do not seem to be regarded as proverbial. Texts of this sort are also not accepted as proverbial in several European languages, among them, German and Swedish.

There are two score such texts in William Scarborough, A Collection of Chinese Proverbs (Shanghai, 1875) that represent several sub-varieties of the genre. It is worth emphasizing here that all or almost all collections of translated proverbs represent the translator’s selection and do not necessarily give the reader an idea of the proverb genre in the foreign language. I cannot point out a collection of translated proverbs that aims to exhibit the native notion of the proverbial. It would be instructive to read a few articles on proverbs chosen from a Chinese encyclopedia. Perhaps the most interesting sidelight of this sort is seen in O. Eissfeldt, Der Maschel im Alten Testament. Eine wortgeschichtliche Untersuchung nebst einer literargeschichtlichen Untersuchung der maschal genannten Gattungen “Volkssprichwort” und “Spottlied” (1913) . For a century and a half and even longer bibliographers have listed collections of proverbs. See, for example, Robert Watt, Bibliotheca britannica (Glasgow, 1819–1824) under such words as Adages, Maxims, Proverbs, Sentences. And there are bibliographies of bibliographies; see, for example, Theodore Besterman, A World Bibliography of Bibliographies (4th ed., 5 vols. Lausanne, 1965–1966) III, cols. 5243–5244. Unfortunately the makers of these lists have not been students of proverbs and have followed bibliographical custom rather than the needs of students. They have restricted themselves to separately published books and have neglected collections published in journals. Many very valuable collections thus escape notice. Furthermore, they do not give the information that a student calls for, although it could be given very easily by the use of abbreviations: the number of proverbs in the collection, the presence or absence of references to sources, the nature of the annotation (if the collector gives any), and the arrangement of the collection, whether alphabetical or according to subject. The citation of parallels in foreign languages should be particularly noted.

Bibliographies made in the first half of the nineteenth century are likely to be more generous with information about details of this sort than modern bibliographies are. Two bibliographies made by students of proverbs are hidden away from bibliographers by publication as journal articles may be cited for special commendation: C. A. Ferguson and J. M. Echols, “Critical Bibliography of Spoken Arabic Proverb Literature,” Journal of American Folklore, LXV (1952), 67–84 (citing only works in western European languages) and W. R. Bascom, “Folklore Research in Africa,” ibid., LXXVII (1964), 12–31, especially pp. 16–18. It is convenient to mention here a fact of great bibliographical importance. The collection of books and manuscripts made by Ignace Bernstein was bequeathed to the Jagiellonian Library at the University of Cracow and can be consulted there. The 4701 books and 26 manuscripts containing proverbs were listed in the Catalogue des livres parémiologiques composant la bibliothèque de Ignace Bernstein (2 vols., Warsaw, 1900. Pp. xx, 560; 650) is a bibliography of the first quality and is all the more valuable because the books can still be consulted. Friends in Poland refer to it all too modestly as “the best collection of books dealing with the proverb in Poland.” It is much more than that. It is the best collection of books of this kind that were published before 1900. No doubt requests for photographic copies needed in a special investigation will be honored. For additional information see Kazimierz Tatarowicz, “Depozyt Ignacego Bernsteina w Biblioteka Jagiellónskiej,” Zezyty naukowe Universitetu Jagiellonskiego (Kraków), Seria nauk spoecznych: Historia, Nr. 3 (1958).

Investigations dealing with individual proverbs are naturally included in dictionaries and collections and are also the subjects of articles in journals. Such special articles are likely to be difficult to discover. Many are, for example, found in Notes and Queries (London), although they are much less abundant in recent years. My list of “Investigations of English Proverbs, Proverbial and Conventional Phrases, Oaths, and Clichés,” Journal of American Folklore, LXV (1952), 255–265 is incomplete, as any list of this sort is likely to be, and needs to be brought up to date. It does not include references to Notes and Queries. References to investigations in languages other than English are rather unsatisfactorily collected in various bibliographies. If we turn from the bibliographies to the collections, some generalizations readily suggest themselves. A careful reader asks about the completeness of the record. He feels little doubt about the Finnish collections which contain thousands upon thousands of items collected from oral tradition by trained and diligent collectors. We may be sure that collecting has been less thorough in other countries. When John Heywood presented his collection to Queen Elizabeth I, he assured her that it was complete. She asked him whether he had included “‘Bate me an ace’, quoth Bolton” (Tilley, A 20) and on looking for it, she found it lacking. The story may be apocryphal, but the lesson it teaches is true enough. Bartlett Jere Whiting has pointed out deficiencies in standard English collections.[3]

A somewhat similar question arises in connection with collections that have not been excerpted for later dictionaries or have been apparently excerpted only at random. For example, an anonymous Scottish schoolteacher picked some sentences out of Erasmus, Adagia for pedagogical purposes: Adagia in Latine and English, Contayning five hundreth proverbes (Aberdeen, 1622. Pp. 39, [1]). The book is rare and sought after for the sake of its printer but may be consulted in the British Museum.[4] With the history of printing we are not concerned, but as students of proverbs we can ask what did the schoolteacher choose and why? Are his English texts idiomatic or are they merely translations? Half an hour in the British Museum will be enough to answer such questions. A century later Nathan Bailey, Philologos, compiled a Dictionarium Britannicum that included “likewise a Collection and Explanation of English Proverbs…” which was incorporated in the Dictionarium. I am citing the second edition (London, 1736) before me. Whether the proverbs appeared in the first edition or remained unchanged in editions after 1736 and where he found them I cannot say. As comparison shows, many of these proverbs are found in such standard works of the time as the collections of John Ray, 1678; Thomas Fuller, 1732; and James Kelly, 1721 (Scottish), but some are not found in these books. Did Bailey take them from oral tradition? The long sequence of English collections that begins with John Heywood’s collection of 1546 does offer after all a relatively complete review.

We can perhaps guess that 10% or somewhat more is lacking. The fact makes it possible to ask and answer some very interesting questions. What can we say about the life of English proverbs? Matti Kuusi has discussed questions of this sort in Virittäjä some years ago, but I am not aware that anyone else has imitated him. These questions are difficult but not entirely impossible to answer. The record is, as we have seen, incomplete but we shall learn much from B. J. Whiting’s forthcoming collection for the years before 1500 that will make it possible to survey English proverbs from the beginning down to 1900. We must reckon with the disappearance of many proverbs adequately attested before 1700, and we must also reckon with many proverbs that reappear in the nineteenth century.

We have not as yet identified a sufficient number of either kind for it to be possible to make any significant historical statements. How far changes in proverbs can be explained by the leveling influence of printing on which Marshall McLuhan lays great stress is still to be made out. I cannot subscribe without qualifications to his notions that literary and linguistic use have reached in the last century a level that has no place for proverbs and proverbial phrases and that these belong to a lower social class. The upper middle class or the international society of Bloomsbury as we see them in H.H. Munro (Saki) and P. G. Wodehouse and The New Yorker do not eschew them. All this needs more attention than it has received. The number and the quality of collections as well as their purposes vary greatly from country to country, language to language, and age to age, but bibliographers rarely include pertinent descriptive details. I shall mention only a few recent collections of the oldest periods and a few typical modern collections,–all of them chosen to suggest the nature and progress of studies in proverbs. Edmund I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs. Glimpses of ereryday life in ancient Mesopotamia (Philadelphia, 1959. Pp. xxvi, 556. proverbs with Biblical and classical parallels) is an account of the earliest recorded proverbs. More tablets remain to be deciphered, translated, and published, but this is an excellent beginning. I cannot say how adequate our knowledge of Babylonian proverbs may be: Bonser- Stephens. Nos. 3104, 3105 cites only two collections more than fifty years old. Our knowledge of ancient Egyptian proverbs is equally unsatisfactory: Bonser- Stephens mingles (Nos. 3433–3460) hieroglyphic Egyptian, Coptic, and modern Egyptian Arabic.

Much of the discussion of the hieroglyphic proverbs concerns the proverbs of Amen-emope and their possible connections with Prov. 22:17–23:11. In this case, as in the case of the Sumerian tablets, we are dealing with proverbs handed on as collections and not with texts collected for the first time. I shall discuss later proverbs transmitted in this way. I cannot discover that any Chinese collection has been translated in its entirety. In other words, we must see Chinese proverbs through the eyes of European excerptors of the tradition. Such collections of Chinese proverbs in western languages as I have seen do not indicate sources and give inadequate indications of dates and places. Historical and regional studies of any sort are out of the question. We have no collection of proverbs from classical Greek times and no modern dictionary, although Reinhold Stromberg has done much recently to awaken interest in them. It is a commentary on the situation that Andreas Schott (Antwerp, 1612) can still be consulted with profit (see Bonser-Stephens, No. 384).

There are various dissertations and similar minor collections containing the proverbs used by particular authors,[5] but no one has brought the bibliography up to date. A diligent worker could put together from them a very valuable dictionary in a few months. Augut Otto collected classical Latin proverbs two generations ago in Die Sprichwörter der Römer (Leipzig, 1890. Pp. xiv, 436. Perhaps 2500 proverbs). This has been reprinted but unfortunately without including M. C. Sutphen, A Collection of Latin Proverbs supplementing Otto’s Sprichwörter (Baltimore, 1902) or Victor Szelinski, Nachträge und Ergänzungen zu Otto, Die Sprichwörter der Römer (Diss., Jena, 1892. Pp. 38). Otto’s collection is remarkable for including the classical Greek originals of the Latin texts, but I am not aware that anyone has discussed the questions that this information suggests. What were the means of transmission? What can be said about the periods when such proverbs of Greek origin were numerous? What proverbs appear to be native Latin materials? And so on. Otto cites modern German parallels occasionally but does not attempt to show the influence of Latin proverbs on later ages. An epoch in the collection of medieval proverbs is beginning with Hans Walther, Proverbia sententiaeque latinitatis medii aevi, I (Göttingen, 1963–), which will be reviewed in Proverbium. I content myself with saying with this work, Bartlett Jere Whiting’s forthcoming collection of medieval English proverbs, and a promised collection of medieval French proverbs will lay solid foundations for all further investigations. For our purposes we may point out several kinds of collections of proverbs. The first in importance is by no means as numerous as it ought to be. It is the collection in which the sources of the texts are indicated. Examples are Otto’s classical Latin collection, the recent English collections by G. L. Apperson and M. P. Tilley, and the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Unfortunately the bibliographies do not clearly identify the rather few collections of this sort. Such collections are obviously the foundation of any serious historical or critical study. A second variety of collection is that in which the text of the proverb is cited without identification of its source or at best with only an author’s name that gives us very little information. Collections of this sort are in the majority. One cannot learn from such a collection when or where a proverb was current or whether it is still in general use. They permit one only to discuss subject matter and that in very general terms. A third variety of collection is ordinarily identified by the name of an author or a place. Those which list the proverbs employed by a particular author usually identify the book in which the texts may be found. Those which list proverbs known in a particular place are ordinarily collections of local oral tradition. These two varieties of collection offer very useful information that can be used in critical and historical discussion. It must be said that collections from oral tradition are likely to contain texts that informants have obtained from books and are therefore disappointing to a student. Guides to the collecting of folklore have given very little advice on collecting proverbs. Perhaps some successful collector of proverbs will point out the best methods and criticize some recent collections. A contrast of methods in collecting riddles and proverbs might prove helpful, for a collector will find that the two genres have many similarities but are very different in their manner of appearance. It is convenient to mention here at greater length the presence of a book-tradition in collections. An example will illustrate its nature and importance.

When Jan Gruter was putting together his compilation of contemporary vernacular proverbs, he needed an English collection and had none at hand. He asked a friend for such a collection and published it in his Florilegium ethicopoliticum (Frankfurt a.M., 1610–1612). He does not name his friend, but the same collection with minor differences was published again in William Camden, Remaines concerning Britaine, 2d ed., London, 1614. Comparison of the collection published in Germany and the collection published in England makes it completely clear that Camden is republishing the German collection. One text is sufficient: “Where wine is not common [i.e., abundant], commons [i.e., meals] must be scant.” This does not make very good sense and it is clear that Camden has thoughtlessly kept a German printer’s mistake by reading “wine” for “coine.” The latter reading is found already in John Heywood’s collection of 1546. The German printer’s version appears in half a dozen seventeenth-century collections that were derived at one time or another from their predecessors and it continues to exist in collections published even in this century. We have here a book-tradition that does not report actual oral tradition. Thus, for example, Professor Mackie L. Jarrel shows in her study of Dean Swift, Polite Conversation (1738), that Swift borrowed much from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century collections, especially those by John Ray and James Kelly.[6] It is not surprising that Swift did this. He would have perhaps maintained that he knew his proverbs in oral as well as learned tradition. The lesson to be learned is that only those collections which indicate clearly the sources from which their proverbs have been derived can be relied upon. I feel, for example, no great confidence in the oral currency of Sumerian proverbs reported to us in a sequence that persists on school tablets during a period of hundreds of years.

A few recent collections are cited here to illustrate the active present interest in proverbs and its variety. For convenience they are arranged according to languages and collections with little or no scholarly value are omitted. (Danish) Bengt Holbek and Iørn Piø, Alverdens ordsprog (Politikens håndbøger, 629; Copenhagen, 1964. Pp. 288. 4444 international proverbs in 7 groups and 81 subgroups according to subjects with scanty but sufficient references to sources but none to comparative texts. The index is good and the bibliography mentions many of the best recent collections). The low price makes the collection a bargain that many will buy for the sake of the witty illustrations. It should be compared with less useful international dictionaries in other languages. Works of this sort are intended for the general reader and do not often serve scholarly uses. (Dutch) C. Kruyskamp, ed., F.A. Stoett, Nederlandse spreekwoorden en gezegden verklaard en vergeleken met die in het Frans, Duits en Engels (8th rev. enl. ed., Zutphen, 1953. Pp. vii, 347. 1633 proverbs with explanatory and historical commentaries) is an enlarged and at the same time a condensed edition of the fourth edition (1924–1925. 2688 proverbs with additions numbered 2688 a, etc.). The earlier edition is still the best international collection for a student and he will want both editions. (English) Jan Harald Brunvand, A Dictionary of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases From Books Published by Indiana Authors Before 1890, Indiana University Folklore Series, 15 (Bloomington, Ind., 1961. Pp. 168. About 1500 proverbs with citation of parallels in standard English collections). Brunvand locates a considerable number of proverbs securely in time and place and characterizes a frontier culture in the period before a remarkable outburst of literary activity. It is not surprising that a folk whose efforts were concerned with establishing themselves in an unfamiliar region kept and used conventional proverbial materials. Frances M. Barbour, ed., Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases of Illinois (Carbondale, Ill., [1966]. Pp. 213. About 3000 sayings in current use. The annotation cites all or virtually all the small local American collections. The bibliography of them [pp. 207–213] is important).

(Spanish) Eleanor S. O’Kane (Sister Katherine Elaine, C. S. C.), Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la edad media, Anejo 2. Boletín de la Real Academia (Madrid. 1959. Pp. 266. 2000 proverbs remarkable for cross- references, citations of sources, but with no references to parallels in foreign languages). This is the foundation for a historical dictionary of Spanish proverbs that is yet to be made. (Swedish) Pelle Holm, Ordsprak och talesätt med förklaringar (Stockholm, [1964]. Pp. 385. More than 7000 proverbs with some references to sources and some explanatory comment). The Spanish and the Swedish collections include very few proverbial comparisons, and this is the rule in non- English collections generally. English collectors have been generous in including proverbial comparisons for three centuries and more. Two important collections of somewhat different character may be mentioned in conclusion. (Russian) V. I. Dal’, Poslovitsy russkago naroda sbornik (Moscow, 1957. Pp. xxviii. 991), a reprint of the 1862 edition with some corrections of misprints and some use of the author’s copy. This contains proverbs in oral use a century ago and has comparative notes. (Slovak) María Kosová, ed., A. P. Zaturecky, Slovenské prislovia, prekadlá a úslovia (Bratislava, 1965. Pp. 396. About 6000 proverbs with occasional references to Polish and Hungarian parallels and infrequently to Latin parallels). The Slovak proverbs, which exhibit a remarkable variety of rhetorical forms, are classified according to subject matter and are provided with an alphabetical index. This is a great improved second edition of a standard collection. While reprints and new editions of collections of tales to songs are numerous, they are rare in the case of proverbs.

The study of proverbs embraces historical and interpretative investigations of individual texts or groups of texts as well as discussions of the place of proverbs in social life. Typical historical and interpretative investigations may be found in collections and dictionaries, of which F. A. Stoett. Nederlandse spreekwoorden (see above) is the best example, and in many widely scattered short articles and notes that are often difficult to discover. The most important collection of such investigations in book form is Julian Krzyzanowski, Madrej glowie dosc dwíe slowie (2nd ed., 2 vols., Warsaw, 1960. Pp. 610, 528. 38 pl.). This, the most learned commentary on a national stock of proverbs that we have, contains explanations of the origin, meaning, and use of Polish proverbs (the term is understood in a very wide sense) with generous references to foreign literatures. The notes are valuable to students of tales and deserve to be indexed. Since Professor Krzyzanowski aims to serve Polish users, he does not add an index in a foreign language that would guide others to his learning. In addition to dealing, as we have seen with collecting texts, the study of proverbs deals with questions of form and matter.

Friedrich Seiler’s learned discussion in Deutsche Sprichwörterkunde (cited above) does not get far beyond classical and western European proverbs (especially those in German). Although standard and authoritative, it does not suggest a great deal in the directions of origins, influence, and history of details of form. Such matters have been rather briefly dicussed until now. The preface to Holbek and Piø, Alverdens ordsprog, pp. 15–21, deals with these subjects so well that I find it embarrassing to take them up once more and shall therefore use their remarks as a springboard. For example, what proverbs in the Germanic languages show alliteration and are common property? What are more recent inventions? We must reckon with alliteration as a force that can make itself felt at any time. Certainly “All that glitters is not gold” cannot be claimed to be very old because of the alliteration. The Swedish “Akta sig för fyra farliga F: flickan, flaskan, fogden og fan (Guard against the four dangerous F’s: women (flickan), the bottle (flaskan), the police (fogden), and the devil (fan) shows both alliteration and the old vowel sequence i- a- o (Ablautreihe), but neither of these peculiarities necessarily implies a great age. Such meditations lead us to ask: What proverbs have enjoyed a very long life? A few proverbs known in Sumerian are or were recently in European use apart from their preservation by their inclusion in the Bible. Like texts in any genre of folklore, proverbs flourish for a time and then disappear from the scene. In the first years of the seventeenth century the idiom or proverbial phrase “to go west” that became generally known in World War I was already current; see my remarks in Southern Folklore Quarterly, XXIV (1960), 192–193, 215. It is English and must be explained by its English origin. It refers to the fact that Tyburn was in the west of London and those who went or, more precisely, were taken there were hanged. This vulgar phrase seems not to have been recorded again in the later seventeenth century and does not reappear for three centuries. Our authors Holbek and Piø point out (p. 17) that proverbs often appear in abbreviated forms that are intelligible only to a native speaker: “Live and let live” requires one to read between the lines and so does “Caute si non caste” with advice of doubtful morality. These two categories of proverbs–the abbreviated texts and the texts giving doubtful advice–need more study. Are we dealing here with “visdoms ord” and what kind of wisdom is it? Our authors point out exclamatory proverbs (p. 18) in the Orient and find them unusual in the West, but one may cite “Watch your step!,” if no more. I cannot read much more than punctuation marks in Bulgarian, but with this scanty ability I find a rather large number of exclamation points in Milko Grigorov and Kostadin Katsaraov, 5000 izborani b’lgarski poslovitsi i pogovorki ([Sofia?], 1964. Pp. 1–7 (preface), 9–323 (classified proverbs without indications of sources), 324–329 (alphabetical index of subject categories), 330–336 (table of contents). A charming book at a very modest price. Metaphorical proverbs, say Messrs. Holbek and Piø, pp. 19–20, may either cite the metaphor and its application or the metaphor alone. They cite a few examples and observe that Oriental proverbs cite the application first as in the Burmese “A clever man needs no teaching; don’t sharpen a knife that is sharp” (No. 131) and Western proverbs cite the metaphor(s) first as in the Hungarian “One knows a dog by his fur, a bird by its feathers, and a man by his friend” (No. 1148). This stylistic observation needs more study. They correctly remark that the interpretation of a proverb containing only a metaphor may resemble guessing a riddle. All this needs to be enlarged upon. I do not wish to pick more plums out of the cake (Rosinen aus dem Kuchen pflücken, – a German proverbial phrase) but only to suggest the variety of proverbial style. Proverbs in art have been little studied, although much interesting evidence can be easily found.[7] There does not seem to be a long history in tradition comparable to the pictorial tradition of fables.

Medieval and Renaissance collections of illustrated proverbs and Breughel’s famous picture have been edited and commented upon but still offer unsolved puzzles. Breughel’s scenes are, it should be noted, illustrations of proverbial phrases rather than proverbs. A more recently practiced variety of investigation is represented by Professor Mathilde Hain, Sprichwort und Volkssprache. Eine volkskundlichsoziologische Dorfuntersuchung, Giessener Beiträge zur deutschen Philologie, 75 (Giessen, 1951, Pp. 131). This is something of the sort suggested by the subtitle of Edmund I. Gordon, Sumerian Proverbs. Glimpses of ancient life in ancient Mesopotamia. Much may be gleaned from Luisita Aguilera P., Refranero panameño. Contribución a la paremiología hispanoamericana (Santiago, Chile, 1955. Pp. 810) with abundant interpretative comment. Compare also Odd Nordland, ” Ordtak. Sosial funksjon of kultursamanheng,” Norveg, 7 (1960), 49–90 (with English summary) and W. H. Jansen, “A culture’s stereotypes and their expression in folk clichés,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 13 (1957), 184–200. I have thus far commented on proverbs in the strictest sense and studies of them. A comparison of the nature of scholarly work on proverbs in various countries is profitable: English studies have, for example, produced in recent years large historical dictionaries; French collections have been numerous in all ages and French books containing explanations are more numerous than those in any other country; German studies are noteworthy for small regional collections and (recently) collections of proverbs used by particular authors; Italian collections are difficult to survey; and, finally, Spanish collections call for a summation, historical and critical, to continue and replace Sbarbi’s magnum opus of three generations age. Such critical and historical comment needs to be enlarged. Much of what might be said applies in general terms to the various proverbial genres: the proverbial comparison, the proverbial phrase, the Wellerism, the familiar quotation, and other varieties that might be recognized. There are some specialized collections in these genres, but they are not easily identified and the books are not readily obtainable. In each genre we meet the same problems of definition, bibliography, collection, and historical, comparative, or interpretative study.

The proverbial comparison was recognized almost five centuries ago in Desiderius Erasmus, Liber parabolarum (Strasbourg, 1516), but this did not stimulate collection and comments in the same fashion as his Adagia had done. There were some collections made during the next century, but such books as Robert Cawdrey, A Treasurie or Storehouse of Similes (London, 1600) or John Spencer, Things Old and New, Or Storehousc of Similes, Sentences, Allegories, Apophthegms, Adagies… Collected from the Writings and Sayings of the Learned of All Ages (London, 1658) contain very little of a traditional vernacular sort.[8] Collections and studies of proverbial comparisons in the Romance languages seem to be more numerous than those in other languages, although comparisons are included in proverb collections generally. For example, in Pelle Holm’s new Swedish collection (1964).

The more recent books in the field can be found in Shirley L. Arora, Proverbial Comparisons in Ricardo Palma’s ‘Tradiciones peruanas’ (Berkeley, California, 1965) and my Proverbial Comparisons from California (Berkeley, California, 1954). While not a great deal has been written about proverbial comparisons, that little is of a uniformly high quality. A historical, bibliographical, and critical study of collections and studies is much to be desired. The number of proverbial comparisons in one of the western European languages is probably rather small. My California collection contains those collected along with proverbs (which were the chief object of attention). They amounted to perhaps 1200 in number. During the next year or two students brought in a couple of hundred more and a diligent search might have raised the number to 2000. My experience and comparison with other collections made in this country lead me to believe that a student needs to reckon with at most 3000 traditional comparisons. The largest collection that has come to my attention is Suomen kansan vertauksia (Helsinki, 1960). This report of oral Finnish tradition does not cite international parallels. The problems that the proverbial comparison presents are the same mutatis mutandis as the problems that the proverb offers, but with the qualification that the proverbial comparison involves few difficulties in translation. The subject of proverbial comparisons should be very attractive to an investigator. The proverbial phrase presents, in almost every regard, a contrast to the proverbial comparison. To be sure, one can say that bibliographies of collections and studies of individual texts in either genre are sadly deficient.

Erasmus included the proverbial phrase in his Adagia and it has been represented after a fashion (that is to say, unsatisfactorily and incompletely) ever since in collections of proverbs, but collections devoted exclusively to proverbial phrases are few and more than one of the few is rare or unobtainable. This situation is much to be regretted, for the proverbial phrase shows clearly the social, national, and idiomatic qualities inherent in a linguistic tradition. The explanation of proverbial phrases is a field in which the amateur disports himself. The lack of evidence often makes it difficult to correct his errors. Notwithstanding this handicap, this is an extraordinarily attractive field of investigation and requires abilities and materials of the most varied kinds. I illustrate the situation by a handful of phrases selected from John Wain, The Contenders (London, 1958): (1) When Robert went for him baldheaded (p. 19), i.e., attacked him suddenly and violently; (2) I’d been to Brighton for a holiday, and I thought it was bang- on (p. 6), i.e., very agreeable; (3) I’d taken a quick butcher’s inside and that had been enough for me (p. 58); i.e., a quick glance; (4) I’m going to surrender like the clappers (p. 193), i.e., suddenly; (5) Only [=But] I find it hard to click with natural women (p. 56), i.e., to feel and be in harmony with; (6) he won’t lose much time in coming round to chew the fat a bit (p. 179), i.e., to converse, discuss; (7) perhaps he just got cold feet (p. 61), i.e., became disinclined. The phrase is one of long standing, but still insufficiently explained. (8) he didn’t get an academic job because nobody could stand his guts (p. 16) and compare the perhaps more elegant “Robert hated Baxter’s insides from the first” (p. 27), i.e., to dislike someone violently; (9) the ability to tell a good painting from a hole in the ground (p. 186), i.e., the least imaginable ability; (10) Before he had got half way through his sentence she had taken his number (p. 151), i.e., had estimated him socially and otherwise; (11) Take a powder (p. 30), i.e., depart suddenly. A commonplace in American detective stories. What powder is implied? (12) She’s [an artist] on the roof (p. 88), i.e., retired? (13) We might have been on a desert island, the way we just stood there. In the brown stuff again, I thought. Joe Soap will now perform his popular self-mutilation act (p. 244). This conveys very little meaning to me. The allusion to the desert island is obscure; the reference to “brown stuff” is even more so; and the last allusion is not clarified by “a name known to all students of English painting Joe S. Shaw. S for Soap” (p. 166). This baker’s dozen of proverbial phrases will have illustrated the nature of the genre and the difficulties that its interpreter meets. “Verbum sap.” or “A word to the wise is sufficient.” The collection and interpretation of proverbial phrases has proved to be “caviar to the general,” i.e., something that appeals only to a few. (Hamlet, ii).

The collections are insufficient in numbers and the interpretations are all too often inadequate. The Wellerism or saying of the form “‘Everyone to his taste,’ said the farmer and kissed the cow” has attracted much attention in recent years. Since such scholars as Professor Giovanni Tucci (Naples), Siegfried Neumann (Rostock), and Arthur Jakob- Bekaert (Eeklo, Belgium) are undertaking to collect and study the texts, we will do well to await the results of their labors. I mention only Iris Järviö- Nieminen, Suomalaiset sanomukset. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, No. 259 (Helsinki, 1959. Pp. 284, with an English summary, pp. 279–284), lest it be overlooked. The last proverbial variety mentioned here is the familiar quotation, which is perhaps not proverbial in a strict sense. The meanings of this term and its equivalents vary considerably from age to age and country to country and the contents and purposes of dictionaries vary accordingly. De compendiosa doctrina, a dictionary by the fourth- century Nonius Marcellus, contains both quotations and “hard” words. Other early dictionaries of quotations are anthologies in a modern sense. I am not aware of any bibliography or history of the genre or of any definitions of pertinent terms. Such ignorance is general, for John Bartlett, compiler of the American Familiar Quotations, could write in 1891 when he was returning the proof of his ninth edition to the publisher: “There never was such a repertory before and it can never be superseded.” Dictionaries of quotations have served various uses and yield materials for various kinds of investigations. For example, B. L. Ullman studied them for information about the manuscript traditions of classical authors, for the dictionaries are derived from sources altogether different from the manuscripts of their works. Some interesting suggestions regarding the use of medieval dictionaries in their own age will be found in Robert A. Pratt, “Chaucer and the Hand that Fed Him,” Speculum, XLI (1966), 619–642. The “hand” is that of John of Wales, who wrote a Communiloquium or dictionary of quotations that the poet used. This very popular book was edited and adapted for several centuries. Another book of the same genre is Anders Gagner, Florilegium Gallicum. Untersuchungen und Texte zur Geschichte der mittelalterlichen Florilegienliteratur, Skrifter utgivna av Vetenskaps- societeten i Lund, 18 (1936), containing texts that are briefer and more nearly proverbial in quality. Although the influence of medieval dictionaries persists through the Reformation and the Renaissance and needs to be discussed, we can see a break in the tradition that meant changes in contents, choice of texts, arrangement, and purpose.

A new epoch begins with such modern works as Gustav Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (1864), although it was suggested by and depended upon its predecessors, and John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (1855). Büchmann aims to inform the user about the sources of words, phrases, and sentences in general circulation and characterizes them only incidentally. Bartlett intends to inspire or interest his reader. A remarkable modern dictionary of this sort is Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, Classical and Modern (9th ed. New York, 1964. Pp. xlii, 2817). A history of these dictionaries, wich are often useful in studying proverbs, is much to be desired. These typical problems in the study of proverbs need to be studied as a foundation for further study. With this information we can investigate more successfully than is now possible the nature and history of the proverb and its role in culture. We are only at the beginning of the task.

Notes *Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 84-100 1. “The Nature of the Proverb,” Harvard Studies And Notes in Philology and Literature, XIV (1930), 274–307. There is also much to the purpose in his “Some Meanings of ‘Proverbial’,” ibid., XVI (1934). 229–252. Those who wish a brief definition will find it in Friedrich Seiler, Deutsche Sprichwörterkunde (Munich, 1922), pp. 1–8, with bibliography (p. 8). 2. Proverbium, 6 (1966), 113–114. I have supplied the numbers 7–13. 3. “Apperson’s Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: Some Additions and Corrections,” Journal of American Folklore, LXI (1948), 44–48; “Tilley’s ‘Dictionary of Proverbs,’ ” Western Folklore, XII (1953), 30–43, 105– 113. 4. See J. F. K. Johnstone and A. W. Robertson, Bibliographia Aberdonensis (2 vols., Aberdeen, 1929), I, 204. 5. See my notes in “An introductory bibliography of proverbs,” Modern Philology, XXX (1932), 200–202. 6. “The Proverbs in Swift’s Polite Conversation,” The Huntington Library Quarterly, XX (1956), 15–38. Eric Partridge, ed., Swift’s Polite Conversation with Introduction, notes and extensive commentary ([London, 1963]. Pp. 180) is a handy reprinting of the text. Partridge does not recognize many proverbial texts and seems to accept the Polite Conversation as a reporting of oral tradition. 7. See references collected in my Proverb, p. 182; Bonser- Stephens, Nos. 3874–3901; and Grace Frank and Dorothy Miner, eds., Proverbes en rimes (Baltimore, 1937. 186 pls.) with instructive introductory comment. See especially Wilhelm Fraenger, Der Bauern Bruegel und das deutsche Sprichwort mit 49 Abbildungen (Erlenbach- Zürich, [1923]. Pp. 159); Weinitz’s identifications of the proverbs in Zeitschrift für Volkskunde, XXV (1915), 292– 300 (with Bolte’s additions); and a variety of studies by Jan Grauls. Perhaps the most notable printed collection of illustrated proverbs is the very rare and often incomplete Jacques Lanniet, Recueil des plus illustres proverbes (3 vols., Paris, 1657–1663) with about 203 proverbs (see Bonser-Stephens, No. 3884. A fourth part (1663) contains proverbs based on the life of Till Eulenspiegel). See further a large folding plate containing illustrated proverbs in Les illustres proverbes historiques (Paris, 1665. See Bonser- Stephens, No. 1001). Another collection of this period is G. M. Mitelli, Proverbi figurati (Bologna, 1678. A frontispiece and 48 pl.). An American example is F. S. Smith, Life and Adventures of Josh Billings (New York, 1883) with one hundred illustrated aphorisms. See also Edmond Faral, Le manuscrit 19152 du fonds français de la Bibliothèque nationale. Reproduction phototypique (Paris, 1934. 205 leaves). The most easily available illustrated proverbs are those in Bengt Holbek and Iørn Piø, Alverdens ordsprog. 8. A few words of warning are in order. The many studies of the homeric simile belong rather to literary history than to folklore studies. Much the same may be said of such works as Eunice Joiner Gates. The Metaphors of Luis de Góngora (Diss., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1933).