ISSN 1323-4633
Volume 2 – Number 1 – 1996



THE definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking; and should we fortunately combine in a single definition all the essential elements and give each the proper emphasis, we should not even then have a touchstone. An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not. Hence no definition will enable us to identify positively a sentence as proverbial. Those who do not speak a language can never recognize all its proverbs, and similarly much that is truly proverbial escapes us in Elizabethan and older English. Let us be content with recognizing that a proverb is a saying current among the folk. At least so much of a definition is indisputable, and we shall see and weigh the significance of other elements later.

The origins of the proverb have been little studied. We can only rarely see a proverb actually in the making, and any beliefs we have regarding origins must justify themselves as evident or at least plausible. Proverbs are invented in several ways: some are simple apothegms and platitudes elevated to proverbial dignity, others arise from the symbolic or metaphoric use of an incident, still others imitate already existing proverbs, and some owe their existence to the condensing of a story or fable. It is convenient to distinguish as “learned” proverbs those with a long literary history. This literary history may begin in some apt Biblical or classical phrase, or it may go back to a more recent source. Such “learned” proverbs differ, however, in only this regard from other proverbs. Whatever the later history may be, the manner of ultimate invention of all proverbs, “learned” or “popular,” falls under one or another of the preceding heads.

It is not proper to make any distinction in the treatment of “learned” and “popular” proverbs. The same problems exist for all proverbs with the obvious limitation that, in certain cases, historical studies are greatly restricted by the accidents of preservation. We can ordinarily trace the “learned” proverb down a long line of literary tradition, from the classics or the Bible through the Middle Ages to the present, while we may not be so fortunate with every “popular” proverb. For example, Know thyself may very well have been a proverb long before it was attributed to any of the seven wise men or was inscribed on the walls of the temple of Delphic Apollo. Juvenal was nearer the truth when he said it came from Heaven: “E caelo descendit Greek text” (Sat., xi, 27). Yet so far as modern life is concerned, the phrase owes its vitality to centuries of bookish tradition. St. Jerome termed Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth a common proverb, when he used it to refer to certain writings which he had regarded as free will offerings and which critics had found fault with: “Noli (ut vulgare est proverbium) equi dentes inspicere donati.” We cannot hope to discover whether the modern proverb owes its vitality to St. Jerome or to the vernacular tradition on which he was drawing. St. Jerome also took The wearer best knows where the shoe wrings him from Plutarch, but we may conjecture that this proverb, too, was first current on the lips of the folk. Obviously the distinction between “learned” and “popular” is meaningless and is concerned merely with the accidents of history.


Often some simple apothegm is repeated so many times that it gains proverbial currency: Live and learn; Mistakes will happen; Them as has gets; Enough is enough; No fool like an old fool; Haste makes waste; Business is business; What’s done’s done. Characteristic of such proverbs is the absence of metaphor. They consist merely of a bald assertion which is recognized as proverbial only because we have heard it often and because it can be applied to many different situations. It is ordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to determine the age of such proverbial truisms. The simple truths of life have been noted in every age, and it must not surprise us that one such truth has a long recorded history while another has none. It is only chance, for example, that There is a time for everything has a long history in English,–Shakespeare used it in the Comedy of Errors, ii, 2: “There’s a time for all things,”–and it is even in the Bible: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo, Eccles. iii, I), while Mistakes will happen or If you want a thing well done, do it yourself have, on the contrary, no history at all.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.


New proverbs have often been made on old models. Certain frames lend themselves readily to the insertion of entirely new ideas. Thus the contrast in Young . . ., old . . . in such a proverb as Young saint, old devil yields a model for Junge Bettschwester, alte Betschwester. A methodical comparison would probably reveal the proverb which gave the original impulse to the formation of the others; but no one has ever undertaken a study of this sort. Martha Lenschau conceives the development as follows: Young angel, old devil (Jung Engel, alt Teufel, thirteenth century); i.Young knights, old beggars (Junge Ritter, alte Bettler, sixteenth century); Young soldiers, old beggars (Junge Soldaten, alte Bettler, seventeenth century). The first form made no distinction for sex. When the substitution of “knight” or “soldier” made the distinction, a by-form for women was invented on the same model: Junge Hure, alt Kupplerin appears to have been the first of such by-forms, although Jung Hure, alt Wettermacherin must also be ancient, since the notion involved in “Wettermacherin” reaches far back. The most recent development is probably the Low German Young gamblers, old beggars (Junge Späler, ole Bedler), and the corruption Young musicians, old beggars (Junge Musikanten, alde Beddellüde), which arises from the misunderstanding of “Späler,” ‘players’ (i. e. gamblers), as ‘players of music’ and the later substitution of a synonym.

It is not always easy to recognize or identify the earliest form which provided the model for later developments; and until several proverbs have been minutely examined from this point of view and our methods of study have been improved, it is hard to say which arguments are safe to use and which are unsafe. In all probability, we may trust to the general principles which have been worked out for märchen, i. e. those employed in the so-called Finnish or historico-geographical method. The relative age and distribution of the various forms of a proverb will throw much light on the development. In the present instance, for example, we might regard the old and widely known Jung gewohnt, alt getan (‘What one is accustomed to in youth, one does in old age’) as a possible model, even of the whole group. Certainly it has given us Jung gefreut, alt gereut (‘ Rejoiced in youth, repented in age’) and as a secondary development: Jung gefreit, alt gereut (‘Married in youth, repented in age’). Since, however, Young saint, old devil is even older and more widely known, I am inclined to consider it the parent of all later forms. Often other arguments than age and wide currency may be brought into court. Usually, a dialectal variation which is essential to a particular form and which limits it to a narrow area is secondary in origin, e. g. Jung gefreit, alt geklait (‘Wed in youth, bewailed in old age’) can have arisen only in a region where ‘geklagt’ is pronounced “geklait.” So, too, Jung gefreit, alt gereut originated in a region–somewhat larger, to be sure, than the one just mentioned–where the dialectal pronounciation of “gereut” made the rhyme tolerable.

A few more illustrations of the creation of new proverbs on the model of old ones will suffice. A familiar German proverbial type employs the notion that the essential qualities of an object show themselves the very beginning, e. g. Was ein Häkchen werden soll, krümmt sich beizeiten (‘ Whatever is to be a hook, bends early’). English representatives of this type are rare, but we may cite Timely crooks that tree that will be a cammock (i. e. ‘gambrel,’ a bent piece of wood used by butchers to hang carcasses on) and It pricketh betimes that shall be a sharp thorn. A German derivative of the type is Was ein Nessel werden soll, brennt beizeiten (‘Whatever is to be a nettle, burns early’). This proverb has found rather wide currency. Although the evidence is not all in, the type or at least its ready employment in new proverbs is German. The form characteristic of Es sind nicht alle Jäger die das Horn blasen (‘They are not all hunters who blow horns’), a form which appears to have been first recorded by Varro (‘Non omnes, qui habent citharam, sunt citharoedi’), enjoyed a remarkable popularity in mediaeval Germany and gave rise to many new proverbs, e. g. They are not all cooks who carry long knives (Es sind nicht alle Köche, die lange Messer tragen); They are not all friends who laugh with you (Zijn niet alle vrienden, die hem toelachen). Outside of Germany and countries allied culturally, the form appears to have had no notable success, except in All is not gold that glitters, which refers to a thing and not a person. Seiler thinks that” Many are called, but few are chosen” (Multi enim sunt vocati, pauci vero electi, Matt. xx, 16; xxii, 14) was the ultimate model for these proverbs, but the similarity is one of thought and not of form. Possibly one could imagine a class based on simple balance and contrast, of which the young-old type and the called-chosen type might both be derivatives, but the fundamental differences in syntactical structure speak strongly against a development of this sort. Young saint, old devil is an old proverbial form which has no verb; Many are called, but few are chosen consists of balanced, antithetical sentences; All is not gold that glitters uses a subordinate clause. The syntactical differences are so great that an influence from one of these types on another does not seem likely.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from and other leading Internet booksellers.

Of course there have been serious accidents occasionally in the passage from Latin into the modern languages, and, furthermore, various modern proverbs have been regarded as descendants of Latin phrases, although the context shows clearly enough that the similarity is merely verbal and does not involve the transmission of ideas. Virgil’s “A chill snake, lads, lurks in the grass” (Frigidus, o pueri, latet anguis in herba, Ecl., iii, 93) is not the source of the idea in our proverb A snake in the grass. The saying When the horse is stolen, lock the barn door cannot rest on a misunderstanding of Juvenal’s words: “If in all the world you cannot show me so abominable a crime, I hold my peace; I will not forbid you to smite your breast with your fists, or to pummel your face with open palm, seeing that after so great a loss you must close your doors, and that a household bewails the loss of money with louder lamentations than death” (Sat., iii, 126 ff.). The reference concerns the Roman custom of closing doors as a sign of mourning. It is wisest not to think of any connection between Juvenal and the proverb and to regard the proverb as a peasant’s invention and as comparable to such sayings as To cover the well after the child is drowned. We may observe in passing that the substitutions which occur in the variants are quite in the manner of oral tradition: for “horse” we have “cow” or “cattle” and for “lock” we have “repair.” But further illustration of such substitutions is unnecessary: proverbs live the same sort of life in tradition, whatever their past history.


*Reprinted from Archer Taylor The Proverb and An Index to “The Proverb”, Sprichwörterforschung Band 6, Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Mieder, Peter Lang, Bern-Frankfurt am Main-New York, 1985, pp. 3-65

  1. Heusler, Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, XXV (1915), 11o, No. 1.
  2. The same, 113, No. 27.
  3. The same, 113, No. 4.
  4. An old maxim. Compare Caute, si non caste. In France, our soldiers paraphrased it as If you can’t be good, be sanitary.
  5. Possibly we can see a connection with Laissez faire à George, il est homme d’âge, a historical proverb. We are told that Louis XII expressed his confidence in his minister, George d’Amboise, in these words. The traditional explanation in America is based on “George” as a name used in addressing Pullman porters
  6. Cf. “Argens fait le jeu” (Baudoin de Sebourc, xxiv, 443).
  7. Primitive Culture, I. ch. iii, 89-90.
  8. See the bibliography in Bonser, Proverb Literature (London, 1930), p. 434, Nos. 3791-3797.
  9. Sea proverbs have been collected for their own sake. Perhaps the first work which makes special mention of such proverbs is a Dutch dictionary of sea terms (W. A. Winschoten, Seeman [Leiden, 1681]). F. A. Stoett extracts some curious superstitions and words from this work; see “W. A. Winschoten’s Seeman,” De Nieuwe Taalgids, XIII (1919), 97-106. For Dutch sea proverbs see van Dam van Isselt, Nederlandsche Muzen-Almanak (1838), pp. 135-139, and particularly Sprenger van Eijk (Handleiding tot de Kennis van onze Vaderlandsche Spreekwoorden . . . van de Scheepvaart en het Scheepsleven Ontleend [Rotterdam 1835-36]). D. H. van der Meer (Verzameling van Stukken betreffende de Friesche Geschiedenis, etc. [Franeker, n.d.], I, 121-133) notes some Frisian sea proverbs. Sébillot (Légendes, Croyances, et Superstitions de la Mer [Paris, 1886-87]) and Corbière (“Des Proverbes Nautiques,” Revue de Rouen et de la Normandie, Vol. XIII [1845]) collect French examples. English and German collections have been made by Cowan (A Dictionary of the Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions Relating to the Sea [Greenesburgh, Pennsylvania, 1894]), Lypkes (Seemannssprüche [Berlin, 1900]), and in the anonymous Sea Words and Phrases along the Suffolk Coast (Lowestoft, 1869-70), a reprinting of articles from the East Anglian Notes and Queries, January, 1869 and January, 1870.
  10. See the bibliography in Bonser, Proverb Literature (London, 1930), pp. 447-448, Nos. 3914-3927.
  11. Zaragoza, 1899.
  12. See Otto, Die Sprichwörter und Sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer (Leipzig, 1890), p. xxv; Bolte and Polívka, Anmerkungun zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen, IV (1930) , 116 n. ll, 365; “Fabel” in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie; Crusius, “Märchenreminszenzen im Antiken Sprichwort,” Verhandlungen d. 40. i.Philologenversammlung zu Görlitz (1890); L. Friedländer, Bilder aus der Römischen Sittengeschichte, I (5th ed., 1881), 469 ff., I (6th ed.,1888), 522 ff.; Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Berlin, 1920), pp. 71-86; Seiler, Lehnsprichwort, I, 22 f., 83 f.; Jente, “Märchen im Sprichwort,” Handbuch des Deutschen Märchens (forthcoming). The article by Kasumovic (Rad of the Jugoslav Academy, CXCI, 195), which is cited in Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, XXIII (1913), 317, has not been accessible to me.
  13. Nahum iii, 12. Quitard regards this passage as source; see p. 37. Compare Büchmann as above, p. 84.
  14. Wesselski, Erlesenes (Gesellschaft Deutscher Bücherfreunde in Böhmen, VIII, Prague, 1928), p. 98.
  15. For these and other examples see Voigt, Zeitschrift für Deutsches Altertum, XXIII (1879), 294 (No. 30a), 305 (No. 11), 287 (No. 14), 301 (No. 58), 304 (No. 8).
  16. Sprichwörter, p. xxv, where additional examples are given. He also believes that They have put a saddle on the ox; it is no task for me (Clitellae bovi sunt impositae plane, non est nostrum onus) is an allusion to a fable; cf. p. 262 and Archiv für Lateinische Lexikographie, VI (1889), 9 n. 1.
  17. See K. Euling, Das Priamel bis Hans Rosenplüt (Germanistische Abhandlungen, No. 25), p. 179 n. 3; Strack, Hessische Blätter für Volkskunde, II (1903), 69, 174; Die Österreich-Ungarische Monarchie in Wort und Bild (Vienna, 1891), VIII (Kärnten und Krain), 151; A. Kopp, Ein Sträusschen Liebesblüten im Garten Deutscher Volksdichtung Gepflückt (Lelpzig, 1902),No. 19. See also the interesting remarks in the preface to D. Hyde, Songs of Connacht (Dublin, n.d.). Apparently a literary tradition lies behind the metrical form of certain Irish proverbs.
  18. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon (Leipzig, 1867-80), s. v. Apfel, 6; Kopp, as above; Strack, as above, II, 174.
  19. Estudios sobre Literatura Popular (Biblioteca de las Tradiciones Populares, Vol. V [Sevilla, 1884]), pp. 67-71, “Coplas sentenciosas,” pp. 75-79, “Antinomia entre un refran y una copla.”
  20. See, for example, Krohn, “Die Entwicklung eines Sprichwortes zum Lyrischen Liede,” Mélanges en l’Honneur de Vaclav Tille (Prague, 1929), pp. 109-112.
  21. See the bibliography of collections of familiar quotations in Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Leipzig, 1912), p. xxvi. The more important collections are Arlaud, Bevingede Ord (Copenhagen, 1878); Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Boston, 1924); Benham, Book of Quotations, Proverbs, and Household Words (London, 1924); Alexandre, Musée de la Conversation (Paris, 1902); Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte; der Citatenschatz des Deutschen Volkes (Leipzig, 1864, 1920); Nehry, Citatenschatz, Geflügelte Worte, Sprichwörter und Sentenzen (Leipzig, 1889); Winter, Unbeflügelte Worte (Augsburg, 1888); Fumagalli, Chi l’ha detto? Repertorio Metodico e Ragionato di 1575 Citazioni e Frasi di Origine Letteraria (Milan, 1895); Otto, Die Sprichwörter und Sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer (Leipzig, 1890); Curti, Schweizer Geflügelte Worte (Zurich, 1896); Ahnfelt, Bevingade Ord (Stockholm, 1879).
  22. Altgermanische Dichtung (Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, Wildpark-Potsdam, 1923), p. 68, ¤ 61.
  23. Ragnarssaga Lodbroka, 15; Kock and Petersen, Ostnordiska och Latinska Medeltidsordspråk (Copenhagen, 1889-94), II, 194; Bugge, Archiv för Nordisk Filologi, X (1894), 96.
  24. Wesselski, Angelo Polizianos Tagebuch (Leipzig, 1929), p. 45, No. 96.
  25. Wesselski, Angelo Polizianos Tagebuch (Leipzig, 1929), p. 45, No. 96.
  26. This may mean a pitchfork or a fork used to punish slaves.
  27. Compare the examples of Latin quotations which verge on proverbs: Otto, Sprichwörter, p. xxii; Otto, Die Geflügelten Worte bei den Römern (Breslau, 1890). See in general the many handbooks of familiar quotations, of which the most useful and most accurate is Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Berlin, 1920).
  28. Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Leipzig, 1920), p. 456.
  29. See Taylor, “The Death of Orvar Oddr,” Modern Philology, XIX (1921), 93-106.
  30. See in general Otto, p. xxii.
  31. Since the Greek proverb employs the imperative, Erasmus is very likely justified in correcting the Latin to read “Let the die be cast” (Alea jacta esto).
  32. Crusius makes some helpful remarks on this problem in his review of Otto, Wochenschrift für Klassische Philologie, VIII (1891), coll. 428-429. See also Otto, pp. xviii-xix.
  33. See Otto, pp. xviii-xix; Crusius, as above, col. 426.
  34. “Die Beziehungen zwischen Slaven und Griechen in ihren Sprichwörtern,” Archiv für Slavische Philologie, XXX (1909), 1-47, 321-364.
  35. “‘Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde,”‘ Publications Modern Language Association, XLII (1927), 865-872, see some additional material in Stoett, Nederlandsche Spreekwoorden (Zutphen, 1924-25), s. v. Morgenstond.
  36. The special character of Biblical proverbs makes it possible to use collections and studies in any language. The more important reference works for such proverbs are found in Dutch and German: Kat, Bijbelsche Uitdrukkingen en Spreekwijzen in onze Taal (Zutphen, 1926); Laurillard, Bijbel en Volkstaal (Amsterdam, 1875; 2d ed., Rotterdam 1901), wlth the comments by Harrebomée, Bedenkingen op het Prijsschrift van Dr. E. Laurillard (Gorinchem, 1877), Sprenger van Eijk, Handleiding tot de Kennis van onze Vaderlandsche Spreekwoorden (Rotterdam, 1835-41); Zeeman, Nederlandsche Spreekwoorden . . . aan den Bijbel Ontleend (Dordrecht, 1877, 1888); and Schulze, Die Biblischen Sprichwörter der Deutschen Sprache (Göttingen, 1860); Büchmann, Geflügelte Worte (Berlin, 1920), pp. 1-70. Biblical quotations and allusions in Old and Middle English literature are collected by A. S. Cook (Biblical Quotations in Old English Prose Writers [New York 1898-1903]) and Mary W. Smyth (Biblical Quotations in Old English before 1350 [New York, 1911]); although these books are not primarily concerned wlth proverbial materials, they give an idea of the way in which the Bible was used and how Biblical proverbs may have arisen. Marvin (Curiosities in Proverbs [New York, 1916]) gives some miscellaneous and unsystematic notes on English Biblical proverbs.
  37. “Ex abundantia . . . loquitur. Wenn ich den Eseln sol folgen, die werden mir die buchstaben furlegen, und also dolmetzschen: Auss dem überflus des hertzen redet der mund. Sage mir, Ist das deutsch geredet?”–Vom Dolmetschen (Weimar ed., XXX, ii, 637).
  38. Cited by D. Murray, Lawyers’ Merriments (Glasgow, 1912), p. 49; C. C. Nopitsch, Die Literatur der Sprichwörter (Nuremberg, 1833), p. 58; Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexicon, s. v. Dieb, 170.