ISSN 1323-4633
Volume 2 – Number 1 – 1996



The proverb offers very convenient illustrations of problems that arise in every genre of folklore, but I shall not extend these remarks by drawing obvious comparisons and leave that task to the reader. It is a very convenient basis for discussion because the texts are familiar to everyone or, if they are not, they can be easily quoted. The following remarks concern what have been called proverbs by good authority and are couched in a proverbial pattern. In order to write a good newspaper article, we are told that a reporter is advised to discover and report the answers to the questions, “Who, What, When, Where and Why?” From one version to another of this advice the questions and their order vary somewhat, and such variations imply oral currency of the formula.[1] In the Middle Ages this series of questions was used in schools to teach pupils how to write. The schoolmaster gave them a proverb and required them to answer the questions “Quis? Quid? Quomodo? Cur? Quibus auxiliis?” and so on. Ultimately these questions are Aristotle’s categories of the accidents or aspects of matter. For convenience I begin with “What?”

What is a proverb? In folklore the names of such genres as the proverb, riddle, tale, or ballad have a wide range of meanings in a single language, country, or age and precise definitions, if they are possible, have been the occasion of much dispute. Identification of these meanings and discussion of them must rest on a generally accepted basis, in other words, on a collection. Our first question has immediately brought another in its train or, as the proverb says, “One thing leads to another.” I cannot readily cite this from a collection. This inability to cite parallels is in itself an attractive aspect of proverb studies: we can easily add to and improve our resources. Let the Wellerism–I shall define the term later–“‘One thing leads to another,’ as the actress tried to warn the bishop when he tried to help her with her galoshes” suffice to show the traditional quality of the proverb.[2]

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.

The question “Where?” is not very different from such questions as “Where are proverbs used?” or “Who collects them?” As early as Sumerian times men made collections for didactic purposes and especially for the schoolroom. In the Middle Ages and even in our own time this is still a typical stimulus. Men buy and read collections to awaken and enlarge reflections on the world and the nature of man, to suggest subjects for conversation, or to provide themselves with comment appropriate to situations in daily life. Such purposes are obviously closely allied to the essence of the moralizing proverb. Probably the collections give a fairly adequate idea of such proverbs. Proverbs expressing ideas that cannot be readily brought into line with sober moralizing or that employ a whimsical manner are likely to be recorded less frequently than platitudes. In literature proverbs are often used to characterize country people and the vulgar generally, but they may on occasion be used in sophisticated writing for special reasons. Children’s books allude to the most familiar proverbs and thus offer useful evidence of their currency. ODEP quotes Goody Two-Shoes of the eighteenth and somebody’s Field Full of Furry Folk, Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies, and Lewis Carroll of the nineteenth century. Evidence from such sources is a reliable guide to what was traditionally current. Jan Brunvand’s collection of proverbs used by Indiana authors before 1890–many of them writers of children’s books– gives a good idea of the conventional moralizing of a frontier population.

And now the question, “To what end?” Why do men use proverbs? An ingenious writer pointed out a generation ago that each genre of folklore has its own characteristic special purpose. As a guide to life’s problems, the proverb summarizes a situation, passes a judgment, or offers a course of action. It is a consolation in difficulties large and small and a guide when a choice must be made. It expresses a morality suited to the common man. It is cautious and conservative in recommending the middle way: “Virtus in medio, Nequid nimis.” It is not a call to high adventure. In the Renaissance men made collections entitled “The Crossing of Proverbs”, that is to say, collections setting one proverb against another. I cite examples to show how typical of proverbs this contrast that marks the middle way is. “Hew to the line” calls for adherence to principle and is moderated by “You never miss a slice from a cut loaf.” “Hitch your wagon to a star” appears also as “Don’t hitch your wagon to a star”, an equivalent of “Discretion is the better part of valor”. “A fool may sometimes give a wise man counsel” is the opposite of “A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer”. The advice is commonplace: “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too; You’ve made your bed. Now lie in it; Listeners never hear good of themselves; Sweep before your own door; Opportunity makes the thief; First come, first served; Self-praise is no recommendation.” Comparisons are often sharply drawn and summarize a situation cogently: “The field is always greener over the fence; The grey mare is the better horse; There is no smoke without fire; Honey catches more flies than gall; There’s no help in crying over spilled milk; Praise the bridge when you have crossed it.”

Proverbs are easily used in passing judgment and can therefore appear in legal contexts: “Two wrongs don’t make a right; An Englishman’s house is his castle; Let the buyer beware (Caveat emptor)”. In the Renaissance instruction in law was often given by stating and interpreting maxims and for this purpose men made collections. Law schools do not now look with favor on this way of teaching the law. Since the interpretation of a proverb for legal purposes may resemble the explanation of a riddle, proverbs and riddles are at times, especially in African tradition, likely to be grouped together. Over the centuries the use of proverbs in literature has varied in many different ways, and generalizations are difficult. Medieval and Renaissance authors seem to have preferred to cite proverbs with little alteration; sophisticated modern authors make allusive reference that may pass unnoticed or gain interest from their obscurity. In saying “The grimly cynical night that makes all cats gray”, Robert Louis Stevenson was hinting at the proverb “At night all cats are gray”. And proverbs or proverbial phrases may be present, although they are no longer often used and are not immediately understood. For example, in the riddle “Robbers came to our house / And we were all in. / The house leaped out at the windows / And we were all ta’en (i.e., taken).–Fish in net” the reference to the house leaping out the windows means that the water flowed through the meshes of the net and also that great disorder prevailed. This idiomatic meaning of the proverbial phrase is now rarely used, but only a little more than a century ago Charles Dickens could write in Sketches by Boz:

The whole family was infected with the mania for private theatricals; the house, usually so clean and tidy, was, to use Mr. Gattleton’s expressive description, “regularly turned out o’windows”.

Dictionaries of English proverbs include many varieties of proverbs and proverbial sayings. I select three of them that have received less attention than they deserve: the Wellerism, the proverbial phrase, and the proverbial comparison and comment on them in this order.

There is an old story that John Heywood presented a collection of proverbs to Queen Elizabeth I with pride and assured her that it was complete. She asked whether he had noted “‘Bate me an ace’, quoth Bolton” and he had not. We no longer know what this Wellerism means and cannot explain the allusion. Wellerisms take their name from Sam Weller in the Pickwick Papers because he had a special liking for them. They are quotations accompanied by mention of the speaker (often with his name) and an allusion to the scene: “‘Sour grapes’, said the fox and could not reach them.” This is obviously enough an allusion to a familiar Aesopic fable that has been converted into a Wellerism in post- classical times. There are half a dozen or more classical Wellerisms and at least one much older Sumerian example.

Wellerisms in which an animal speaks are usually allusions to fables, although I am not sure that there is one underlying “‘What a dust I raise,’ said the fly as it sat on the wheel”. Wellerisms in which a man or woman speaks may be actual remarks that caught popular fancy and became traditional: “‘That I would fain see,’ said blind Hugh”, which was current in the sixteenth century, may be such a quotation, for there was then a famous wit called Blind Hugh. A Swedish scholar has conjectured that generic names replaced specific names when the appropriateness of the specific names was forgotten. Thus we may have, although he does not cite this example, “‘I see’ said the blind man” and with a further development involving a pun, “‘I see,’ said the blind man and picked up his hammer and saw”.

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.

This account of proverbs and kindred forms has been brief. I could wish that one might apply to it the saying “Good things come in small packages.” (the record of this proverb is all too scanty). However that may be, “There is an end to everything.”


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 74-83

  1. The most recent instance I have noted is Samuel Beckett, Murphy (New York, [1957]), p. 17: “He . . . wanted to know the who, what, where, by what means, why, in what way and when. Scratch an old man and find a Quintilian.” The novel was published in 1938. In The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), ch. xxiv, Margery Allingham gives a somewhat different version: “Are you sleuthing a bit in your own inimitable way? Is the old cerebral machine ticking over? Who and what and why and wherefore, so to speak?”
  2. Quoted from Leslie Charteris, “The Ever-Loving Spouse.”