Volume 2 – Number 1 – 1996
THE WISDOM OF MANY AND THE WIT OF ONE *
A proverb is wise; it belongs to many people; it is ingenious in form and idea; and it was first invented by an individual and applied by him to a particular situation. My title illustrates both the origin and the nature of a proverb. One morning at breakfast Lord John Russell, the English statesman who negotiated the treaty to put an end to the Seven Years War, is said to have defined a proverb by saying it is One man’s wit and all men’s wisdom. Popular use has shifted the order of the elements and their emphasis. A proverb is, in the first place, wisdom–what sort of wisdom we shall see later, and the element of individual invention has subordinate importance.
What is wisdom, which is the first and most significant quality of a proverb? The easiest and surest answer is to look at some samples. For one thing, it is moral advice based on experience. Honesty is the best policy is familiar enough and cannot be said too often. Don’t cross your bridges before you come to them is sound counsel from a traveler’s experience. The truth may be bitter and cynical: Never give a sucker an even break, Money doesn’t grow on trees, and Them as has gits. I know very well that the last of these is an aphorism coined by a California poet. Still, we can safely say that One man’s wit (as Lord John would have it) has become traditional.
A proverb is practical as well as moral wisdom. Rain before seven, shine before eleven is a traditional observation about the weather that is more likely to be true in England than in California and thus betrays its foreign origin. Where it was at home it had practical value. You must eat a peck of dirt before you die means, as proverbs often do, two things. Either one should not mind too much what has been called “clean dirt” or one will suffer many humiliations during one’s life. An apple a day drives the doctor away is proverbial medical recommendation, and probably a very sensible one, too.
Every aspect of life yields general advice, that is to say, proverbs. Law gives us Every man’s–or an Englishman’s–house is his castle. First come, first served is an old rule about bringing corn to the mill. Silence gives consent and The king can do no wrong are legal maxims. Beside these one can name proverbs giving us a kind of law not written down in books: All’s fair in love and war, Hands off is fair play, and Don’t kick a man when he is down. Does Every dog is allowed his first bite have any standing in court? From the church we have An honest confession is good for the soul, and modern psychology tells us how wise this advice is and urges us to put it into practice. In daily life we see that A new broom sweeps clean, Too many cooks spoil the broth, and You can’t spoil a rotten egg. The advice may be ironical: Bachelors’ wives and old maids’ children are well taught. There is sound counsel in Fish or cut bait and Make friends while you are going up, you may need them coming down. Few proverbs reflect a highly organized social and commercial life: Business is business, Cut your losses and let your profits run, and You never lost money taking a profit. Here are enough examples of the kinds of wisdom found in proverbs, and we are told Enough is enough.
We are told that A cat may look at a king refers to a visit of Emperor Maximilian to the free city of Regensburg. On this occasion he visited the shop of a man making woodcuts. The cat on the workbench, when it was disturbed, rose, stretched, and looked insultingly at the emperor. No doubt courtiers noted and remembered the incident. However, Regensburg was a free city and was visited rarely by the emperor and then only on invitation. We can fix definitely the date of Maximilian’s visit, and the proverb was in print some years earlier. Another and perhaps more fantastic explanation is offered for Before you can say Jack Robinson. It is supposed to have a French origin. “Jacques” is a name for a servant, and “Robinson” for an umbrella. On seeing rain clouds, one calls, “Jacques! Robinson!” and a servant appears instantly with an umbrella. I cannot be sure about the French scenery of this explanation, but, strange as the facts are, there was a century ago a circus company owned by John Robinson and “Jack Robinson” is–or was–a term used by circus folk for a sudden shower.
Circumstances may popularize a proverb. Mad as a hatter has its origin in the fact that hatters used mercury in making felt and were poisoned by it. Their staggering gait and thick speech made it possible to call them “mad”. This comparison might not have come into general use but for two accidents. Three candidates for Parliament in the 1830’s were hatters. Political opponents called two of them mad with or without good reason, and the third acknowledged publicly that he had been in an insane asylum. This might have been sufficient to establish the comparison in traditional use, but Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland ensured its acceptance.
Because proverbs are the “wisdom of many”, men have often tried to characterize the “many” by choosing examples and drawing inferences from them. One cannot learn much from such studies. Those who have written have not had open minds. They knew–or thought they knew– the answer before they began. The history of proverbs is so confused and so little studied that we can do little in this direction.
We come to the second half of Lord John Russell’s definition, that is, “one man’s wit.” A proverb is an invention of an individual who uses ideas, words, and ways of speaking that are generally familiar. Because he does so, his sayings win acceptance and circulate in tradition. The phrases that accompany proverbs recognize this fact. A user of proverbs is likely to say, “As the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare says,” but we may look for it vainly in such places. While the phrase may not be true of the particular proverb, it has a general truth: some one person did say it for the first time. The ascription is not necessarily true and that fact need not trouble us greatly. “Confucius say” was a popular cliché some years ago but does not prove a descent from Confucius or even a Chinese source. “Little Audrey,” “my grandfather,” “the old feller,” and most popular of all, “they” did not necessarily invent the sayings which they are credited, but mention of them stresses the share of the individual in proverbs. Abraham Lincoln seems to have given us, Don’t swap horses when crossing a stream, and the prizefighter James J. Corbett, The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
It is hard, indeed impossible, to know what men live by (is this book title now proverbial?) or what makes them click (which is perhaps proverbial and is certainly a cliché). Proverbs give us as clear an idea as we can hope to get about the forces that influence men and the ideals that they hold. Their range is limited to rather commonplace observations, but most of us are rather commonplace, too. In difficult situations men turn to proverbs for answers, and they find them there. In civilizations without writing, proverbs are used in settling disputes, and the man who quotes the proverb best suited to the situation wins. I have heard a judge on the bench say, Two wrongs don’t make a right, and felt that his comment clarified the situation and prevented it from becoming worse. In a difficult situation we say, with a shrug, It could be worse, The worst is yet to come. Such consolation is poor help, but it is help and many have nothing better. Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched is a good warning to be cautious about Building castles in the air. If we are tempted to an unkind or thoughtless act, remember that The chickens, when hatched, will come home to roost. By no means have all proverbs a cynical and bitter taste. We are told Not to look at the hole in the doughnut and Everything will come right in the end. Miracles nerer cease is still true. There’s gold in them thar hills, and some of it is in proverbial shape.
*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 68-73