Home  »  Curiosities in Proverbs  »  Introduction

D.E. Marvin, comp. Curiosities in Proverbs. 1916.


A PROVERB, according to Webster, is “An old and common saying, a phrase or expression often repeated.” Old it must be and common, for a verbal statement, no matter how wise or witty it may be, rarely becomes a proverb until it is certified by the voice of the people.

Three hundred and fifty years ago John Heywood said that every proverb had the three essential characteristics of brevity, sensibility, and saltness; but one from Scotland contains thirty-nine words, one from Germany fifty-seven, one from India sixty-two, one from Hindustan sixty-three, and one from China ninety-six. The Arabs are very fond of grouping objects in their sayings and not infrequently use from twenty to forty words in giving expression to their thoughts.

As for sensibility, what reason is there in the Italian phrase, “He has done like the Perugian who, when his head was broken, ran home for a helmet,” or the Scotch sentence, “Wipe wi’ the water and wash wi’ the towel,” or the Hindustani proverbial question, “If your wife becomes a widow who will cook for you?” or the Greek adage, “Shave an egg and take its hair?”

If proverbs are not necessarily short nor sensible they may possess the characteristic quality of saltness, at least in the sense of the old Arabian saying, “A proverb is to speech what salt is to food.”

Lord Chesterfield, who was fastidious about dress and deportment, declared that a man of fashion never had recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms; yet many wise and useful people have, like Solomon, “pondered and sought out and set in order” many of them.

Some of the proverbial phrases in common use today are very old, dating back into remote antiquity—to the time of Kalidasa, the Hindu dramatist; Æsop, the wise fabulist; the seven sages of Greece; Homer, the epic poet, and Aristotle, the philosopher. Six hundred years ago men admonished each other that “One should not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Two thousand years ago they repeated the saying, “A fool shineth no longer than he holds his tongue,” and five thousand years ago they declared that “He that is wrong fights against himself.” Long before the coming of Christ the people of the Orient were repeating our familiar adages, “One sheep follows another,” “A good life is better than high birth,” and “The road has ears, so have walls,” which last saying gave rise to our familiar maxim—“Walls have ears.” During the time of Moses people compared their mighty hunters to Nimrod and their men of character and prowess to their heroes.

Men of old did not call the words of their sages proverbs but referred to them as “sayings,” “parables,” “the words of the wise” and “the sayings of the ancients,” yet in all essential particulars they were the same.

The old Romans were as fond of declaring that “He who chases two hares catches neither,” and the Greeks were as sure that “One swallow does not make a summer,” as we are today. Cæsar, we are told, exclaimed “The die is cast!” as he urged his charger through the Rubicon.

Shakespeare’s plays abound in proverbial quotations; Scott familiarized himself with the phrases in constant use by his countrymen and gave them expression in his novels; the preachers of the Reformation used the aphorisms of the people with telling effect in their warnings and exhortations; John Knox, Bishop Latimer, Jeremy Taylor, Matthew Henry, and a host of others clinched their arguments and pointed their lessons with well-chosen proverbs.

They are, as has been declared, “The safest index of the inner life of the people.” Historians may record a nation’s political growth and tell of the conflicts that gave strength and permanency to its institutions, but they cannot make known perfectly the thoughts of the people, nor indicate the intellectual status, moral standards, and social ideals of a community, save as they are able to conduct their readers in spirit into the very presence of those of whom they write and cause them to hear the voices of the street, the home, and the shop. It may be that a certain degree of crudity will be found in the language that is heard, but that is because the men who speak are crude; the “voice of the multitude” is never the voice of the schools. From the study of the proverbs current in Jerusalem when Solomon reigned as King, Dr. Thomson was able to give an accurate and interesting description of the social life of the people in that city.

But proverbs are more than an index of men’s lives; they are also the record of their vocabulary, so that it is unsafe to leave them out of consideration in studying the language of any community. This fact is indicated by the different forms that adages take when used by people in widely separated districts.

Sometimes the meaning of a proverb is misunderstood because of ignorance regarding its origin, change of form through repetition, application to certain conditions, its use in widely separated communities, or the altered significance of words, so that it often becomes necessary in searching for the exact meaning of a saying to study not only the history of the times in which it became current or was most popular, but also the language, literature, folk-lore, songs, and superstitions of the people. Not infrequently the physical condition of the district where it was first used has to be known in order to discover its exact significance. “Proverbs,” said Joseph Parker, “are condensed philosophies; sometimes proverbs are condensed histories; sometimes the interpretation of a proverb seems to lie a long way from what is most obvious in its mere letter.”

Few people who have not given particular attention to the subject realize to what extent proverbs are quoted throughout the Bible. While Solomon wrote three thousand, some of which are preserved, the prophets and chroniclers of Israel quoted a large number, and it is not unreasonable to believe that many of the phrases and similes attributed to the inspired writers were familiar to the people and were in their nature proverbial.

During the period covered by Old-Testament history proverbs were not only employed in the affairs of every-day life but possessed an authority that is not given to them at the present time. They were often accepted as a final appeal. “The words of the ancients” were “the words of the wise” and therefore true. That is not to assume that they were always followed, for there were perverse and self-willed men then as now who refused to receive instruction, as we learn from Prov. xxvi:7–9.

A striking feature of Old-Testament proverbs is their seriousness. Being to a large extent based on Israelitish law and expressing dire judgment on evil-doers, they were useful both for admonition and warning. The Hebrews regarded themselves as set apart by God as a peculiar people, a holy nation; they would therefore naturally feel that the trivial and humorous sayings of the street would be out of place if quoted in their sacred books.

Of all the proverbs of the Bible those attributed to Solomon have received the most attention, not only because of their truthfulness and practicability, but also because they form perhaps the oldest extended collection of maxims in existence. Though Solomon’s “wisdom excelled the wisdom of the children of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt” and “he was wiser than all men,” comparatively few of his sayings have been preserved. Of the three thousand that are attributed to him, scarcely eight hundred are found in the Scriptures. Some of the old Rabbinical scholars were fond of believing that those on record admitted of a double and triple interpretation and were therefore nearly if not quite equal in number to three thousand.

Unlike the proverbs of India, that are largely agricultural, the sayings of Solomon are for the most part precepts of the town and reflect conditions incident to city life; furthermore they differ from others in that they were the production of one man and did not take their rise from the “voice of the multitude.”

Solomon was a king and spoke as a king; his counsels were not so much the counsels of a man to his fellow men as of a sovereign to his subjects. His station and wisdom gave him a wide hearing and his words were repeated as words of authority. Possessing a well-informed mind, superior judgment, and a wide knowledge of men and things, he took a broad view of life and was able to speak of many objects, of trees, herbs, beasts, birds, fishes, and creeping things (1 Kings iv:33), throwing his observations in the form of parallelisms.

Most of the proverbs quoted in this volume from the Old Testament are those of Solomon and show the general characteristics and forms of sayings used among the people of the East. They bear a striking resemblance to the aphorisms of the roving Arabs. Solomon was wise not merely in what he said but in the way he expressed himself. Whether his adages were adaptations of maxims current at the time, as some suppose, or were original with him, he was able to speak in a way that he knew would appeal to his contemporaries. The Jews have always held them in high esteem and the Christian Church has regarded them as unrivalled among the counsels of men. They are not only wonderful as literary productions and wise precepts, but “they bear,” as Philip Schaff declared, “the stamp of divine wisdom and inspiration.”

The writers of the New Testament were not only familiar with the sayings of the Rabbis, but with many Grecian, Indian, Babylonian, and Persian aphorisms that had come into common use among the people. Homer, Æsop, Solon, Aristotle, and others had introduced a large number of adages to the Jews of Palestine and the number was increased by the addition of such as were wrought out of daily experience. Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was undoubtedly in the habit of quoting them; thus the logia of the Hebrew sages, the aphorisms of the wise, and the sayings of the town’s people would be heard by Jesus in His childhood and youth and would be used by Him in His intercourse with men; furthermore the quotation of proverbs in public instruction was common among teachers, particularly when addressing large assemblies. Jesus was a man among men; His language was that of the home and the street and the “common people heard him gladly.” Those who listened to His words wondered not so much that He repeated the precepts of every-day life, for that was expected, as that he was able to so transfigure them by spiritual application that they seemed to have a new beauty and power.

The Sermon on the Mount has many phrases that are now used as proverbs; some of them may have been similarly used in Jesus’ day and have been quoted by Him. We know that after talking with the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well He repeated to His disciples the saying, “One soweth and another reapeth,” and that at other times He said, “No prophet is accepted in his own country” and “Physician, heal thyself.” It is not unlikely that when He declared that His generation was like children in the marketplace who called to their companions, “We have piped unto you and you have not danced,” He quoted a familiar saying taken from Æsop’s fable of “The Fisherman Piping.”

The use of proverbs was natural to Jesus, not only because they were apt and authoritative, but also because they were picturesque and suggestive. They were germs of allegories and He loved to enforce His teachings with stories of life familiar to His countrymen. Many of His parables, as well as those spoken by the Rabbis, might well be amplifications of existing proverbs. Men of the East have always been fond of both forms of speech, and it is not strange that some confusion should have arisen in referring to them as though they were the same. (See Ps. lxxviii:2; Matt. xxiv:32; Mark iii:23; Luke iv:23; v:36; John x:6; xvi:25, 29.)

David Smith, in his recent life of Christ, refers to thirty or forty proverbs found in the New Testament that were either quoted by Jesus or the Jews in conference with Him.

It is the same with the writers of the Epistles: they quoted freely from the sayings of the people and used phrases that were proverbs in process of formation.

The student of proverbs is often surprised to find among the familiar sayings of non-Christian nations phrases that teach lessons closely resembling those that are found in the Bible. In some cases the form is almost identical. This is explained by the influence of missionaries, foreign residents, and tourists, and by the fact that the law of righteousness is written in the hearts of all men. (Rom. i:18–23.)

Speaking of the apparent reverence for sacred things among Orientals, W. M. Thomson, the missionary and traveller, says that it is quite common: “No matter how profane, immoral, and even atheistical a man may be, yet will he, on all appropriate occasions, speak of God—the one God, our God—in phrases the most proper and pious.” “We are abashed and confounded in the presence of such holy talkers,” said he, “and have no courage, or rather have too much reverence for sacred things to follow them in their glib and heartless verbiage. The fact is, I suppose, that Oriental nations, although they sank into various forms of idolatry, never lost the phraseology of the pure original theosophy.”

In Persia it is common to speak of a place of safety as “Noah’s Ark” and call the babblings of a boaster “Moses’ Rod,” and in Turkey the people refer to men who uncomplainingly await the development of events as possessing “the patience of Job,” and indicate the great antiquity of events or monuments by saying that they belong to “the age of Moses.”

It must be remembered that many, if not most, Eastern proverbs and phrases that seem to indicate familiarity with the Bible came into existence through the medium of the Koran.

Such phrases as “To rob Peter to pay Paul” and “Nothing so deaf as an adder” have travelled from one land to another until they have become almost universal in their use and are quoted by thousands of people without any clear perception of their source or original significance.

Reference has been made to the presence of Indian, Persian, Babylonian, and Greek sayings that were in use in Palestine during the early part of the first century; others were carried by the Israelites from Egypt; others were borrowed from the nations that they subdued, and others were introduced by the Romans, so that a large number of those that are called Biblical were used long before the writers of the Testaments quoted them in their chronicles. It is therefore possible that many of the aphorisms of non-Christian nations that seem to be borrowed from the Bible may antedate the scriptural record.

Biblical phrases and references used as proverbs in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, and other lands, that indicate a knowledge of the Christian faith, are for the most part mere paraphrases or allusions to scripture passages.

Notwithstanding the large number of proverbs that seem to be suggested by the Bible, there are comparatively few that contain a direct religious appeal. Mr. F. Edward Hulme in his Proverb Lore gives as a reason that such appeals are somewhat outside the function of proverbs and on a higher plane. “The wisdom of proverbs,” he says, “concerns itself more with time than with eternity, though the advocacy of truth and honour, the exposure of knavery, the importance of right judgment, and many other points that make for the right are contributary to the higher life.”

Nearly all proverbs are man-made; women have had little or no part in forming them except so far as they have influenced the opinions of their male companions. Many of them refer to feminine traits and obligations, but only as they are considered by men. The few that reflect the feminine mind are generally found in sections of the world where women are held in most subjection.

The great mass of familiar sayings are expressions of worldly wisdom; some are often selfish and even coarse, but on the other hand there are many that appeal to the highest manhood, as, for example: “A hundred years cannot repair a moment’s loss of honour” (French); “An honest man does not make himself a dog for the sake of a bone” (Danish); “Catch not at the shadow and lose the substance” (English); “To the wasp we must say ‘neither thy honey nor thy sting’” (Hebrew); “He who makes himself bran is picked by hens” (Arabian); “Better poor with honour than rich with shame” (Dutch); “Conscious guilt will fret the heart” (Tamil).

Not only do proverbs sometimes commend virtue and honour, but there are not a few that are so graceful in form and beautiful in thought that it seems as though they might be lines or couplets taken from the forgotten songs of by-gone days, or perhaps from the writings of some unknown poet. Take, for example, such as these: “The heart has its summer and its winter” (Osmanli); “Husband and wife in perfect accord are the music of the harp and lute” (Chinese); “A widow is a rudderless boat” (Chinese); “An old man in love is like a flower in winter” (Portuguese); “Grey hairs are death’s blossoms” (English); “The almond tree is in flower”—referring to the silver locks of the aged (Hebrew); “Death is a black camel which kneels at every man’s gate” (Turkish); “Heaven is at the feet of mothers” (Persian); “Unfading are the gardens of kindness” (Greek).

The most beautiful proverbs came from the Orient, where the temperament of the people leads to contemplation, and where men have time to spend in shaping their precepts and counsels.

One who has lived much among the wandering Arabs says that they “are extremely partial to a kind of rhythm and, even in prose, string together words and short sentences which terminate in similar sounds”; but these children of the desert do not depend on rhythm. Living beneath the open sky where the silence is profound and nature is overpowering they have learned to express themselves in bold imagery and often with wondrous beauty. The Persians and Chinese, as well as the Arabs, delight in phrasing their thoughts in poetical language.

It is difficult to translate an Eastern proverb and retain its beauty. The meaning may be given with a reasonable degree of accuracy, but the underlying thought and graceful arrangement of words can be seen only when it is read in the original. Oriental phrases that seem in their translation to be commonplace similes and simple truisms often possess unusual beauty.

There are certain subjects that everywhere lend themselves to serious consideration and graceful expression. Men cannot speak lightly of the feebleness of old age, the certainty of death, nor of their personal relation to God; they cannot connect maxims that commend worldly sagacity and business cunning with the flight of time, the nearness of eternity, or the obligations of morality and religion. “Of proverbs,” said Emerson, “although the greater part have so the smell of current bank-bills that one seems to get the savour of all the market-men’s pockets, and no lady’s mouth may they soil, yet are some so beautiful that they may be spoken by fairest lips unblamed; and this is certain—that they give comfort and encouragement, aid and abetting to daily action.”

Wit and humour in proverbs are common with men who live in favoured lands. There is wisdom as well as pleasure in quoting an adage for instruction that is likely to be received with a laugh or a smile, and it is no wonder that in countries where there are liberty and opportunity a large number of such adages should be in use. It is, however, different where misrule and oppression depress the spirits of the people, or where the struggle for existence is so severe that life is filled with danger. In such places there is an incongruity in pleasantries of speech, and wit and humour seem out of place. Yet even under such circumstances nature is true to herself, and in the face of the most adverse conditions men will sometimes quote an amusing aphorism and droll sayings will suddenly spring into popularity; indeed some of the wittiest phrases had their origin in times of distress and suffering. Proverbs have been called “the tears of humanity,” not because they are sad, for many are joyous; not because they are depressing, for many are filled with laughter, but because so many have made their appearance when the lives of the people were embittered by hard toil or made perilous by threatened injury and loss. It must, however, be remembered that a phrase first used with a serious purpose may afterward appear to be humorous because of ignorance concerning the circumstances under which it was originally used and the habits of the people from whom it sprang. Social ideals and usages differ to so great an extent that the purposeful expressions of one community sometimes seem grotesque in another, and the foolish saws of one nation are taken for wise maxims by another.

Witty proverbs spare no one; their shafts are sure to find vulnerable places in every man’s life, whether he be a king or a beggar, a lord or a peasant, a master or a slave. Education, social standing, political influence, and even religious profession offer no protection; wherever there is a defect in character or conduct there is an opportunity, and an adage is easily found to expose or ridicule it. Sometimes the faults of individuals are charged to classes and many have to suffer for the shortcomings of few. The common people who make proverbs and give them currency are not only intolerant of hypocrites, boasters, misers, gabblers, and fools, but are particularly severe on priests, physicians, and lawyers whom they ridicule with a plainness of speech that seems at times almost cruel. If a saying presents to the mind a ludicrous picture of inconsistency, disappointment, or calamity it is appreciated all the more. What so absurd as the scenes suggested by the Behar observation, “The Kajar has gone to Bihar, while the wife has wide spread her eyelids,” and the Persian phrase, “The titmouse holds up its feet that the sky may not fall upon it.”

Nearly all contradictions in proverbs are caused by the different conditions under which men live. People form their opinions regarding the wisdom or foolishness of any particular course of action by the results as they are seen in the localities with which they are most familiar. Sometimes contradictions are caused by a changed emphasis in rendering and sometimes by incorrect repetition.

Considering the different standards of life in the world and the variety of social usages, it is not strange that there are many contradictions in the counsels of men; the wonder is that there are not more. The wisdom of one land is the foolishness of another. Even in the same community conditions change and men of unlike temperaments look at courses of action from different points of view.

“Proverbial wisdom, it must be borne in mind,” says Mr. Hulme, “deals sometimes with only one aspect of truth. The necessary brevity often makes the teaching one-sided, as the various limitations and exceptions that may be necessary to a complete statement of a truth are perforce left unsaid. One proverb therefore is often in direct contradiction to another and yet each may be equally true. For example, Solomon tells us to ‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit,’ and he also tells us to ‘Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.’ These two directions are placed one immediately after the other, of deliberate forethought, that the sharp contrast may force itself on the attention. The two modes of action are in direct contradiction, yet each is equally valuable in its place, and, according to circumstances, one or other of them would be the right course to pursue. To the restless, unstable man we may well quote the well-known adage, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’; but, on the other hand, it is equally true that ‘A tethered sheep soon starves.’ While one villager is content to remain in the little hamlet where he was born, living hardly throughout his life, the recipient of a scanty wage, of soup and blankets from the vicarage or the hall, and finally of a pauper grave, his schoolmate, the rolling stone, goes out into the big world and fights his way into a position of independence.”

“A man’s life,” we are told, “is often built on a proverb.” It is more certainly true that proverbs are built on men’s lives and not only show their character and habits but their occupations, whether they are sea-faring people, herdsmen, soldiers, agriculturists, tradesmen, or mountaineers. But, whatever the prevailing employment of any community, the people are always acquainted with animal life and are quick to observe in the appearances and traits of beasts and birds, and even fish, reptiles, and insects, resemblances to men. The docile sheep reminds them of obedient children or tractable servants; the strutting peacocks, with their large and beautiful tails, of gaudily dressed women; the rock-climbing goats, of bold adventurers; the cunning foxes, of unprincipled and shrewd tradesmen; the chirping crickets, of care-free merrymakers; and the slippery eels, of unreliable employees or dependents. This readiness to see resemblances everywhere shows itself in proverbial similes and comparisons—the man with a sluggish mind is “as stupid as an auk”; a cheerful companion is “as happy as a clam”; the headstrong youth is “as wild as a buck”; the diligent workman is “as busy as a bee”; the courageous soldier is “as brave as a lion”; the neighbour who is lean and tall of stature is “as gaunt as a greyhound.”

Men refer in their proverbs only to such animals as are well known in the locality where they live; thus the inhabitants of India find material for their maxims in the habits of the elephant and the cobra, while Englishmen find theirs in the traits of horses and cows, so that one may secure much information regarding particular animals by studying the phrases current in the lands where they are seen.

Dr. Thomson who was intimately acquainted with the roving Arabs thus alludes to the frequency with which they refer to the camel: “There is scarcely any limit,” he declares, in The Land and the Book, “to the proverbs which have been derived from this patient slave and inseparable companion of the Arabs. Its size, and sex, age, colour, habits, diseases, accidents; its manifold uses; its milk and flesh, hair and hide; its huge hump, crooked, clumsy legs, spongy feet, short tail, small ears, large, soft gazelle eyes, slit nose, sullen lips, prodigious mouth; its affection for its young, and for its master; its patience, docility, and mighty strength; its jealousy, stupidity, and ferocity; its manner of eating and drinking; its ability to endure thirst, to make long and swift journeys; its growling, biting, fighting, and other things camelish without limit—all are availed for proverbial purposes.”

Few people realize the extent to which animals are referred to in the common aphorisms of the world. One compiler collected more than five thousand animal proverbial phrases and there is little doubt but that the number could easily be doubled. A few are given in this volume without comment to indicate in some measure the range of such sayings.

While men of different lands vary in the expression of their thoughts and use figures of speech peculiar to themselves, human nature is the same everywhere and repetitions are frequent so that the source of many well-known axioms is hidden from the knowledge of men. “The experiences of humanity,” it has been said, “are like the molten metal upon which each nation stamps the cast of its own characteristics before they pass into currency as proverbs.” Folk tales, historic incidents, and literary references sometimes indicate the national setting of an adage and its form and use sometimes throw light on its source, yet no student of proverbs is ever fully qualified to tell whence every saying comes.

The old Greeks were fond of making proverbs that contained references to their mythology, poetry, and history; while the Romans, though they often borrowed from the sayings of the Greeks, seldom referred to their gods and rarely used adages that were in the least degree poetic. They were a practical people and their aphorisms were for the most part direct and businesslike.

The English, being enterprising and aggressive, created a large number of pithy expressions for their own use and appropriated many more from other people, particularly from the Romans. Skeat, in giving a list of three hundred and two early English proverbs, includes thirty-seven that were borrowed directly from classical sources, and remarks that others from the list might be found in Cicero, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Pope Innocent III, and in the books of obscure writers.

Scotch and Welsh proverbs naturally closely resemble those that are in use in England, particularly in their practicability. As the English borrowed from the ancients, so the Scotch and Welsh borrowed from the English, and to meet their own needs changed the English forms of expression wherever it became necessary and added other apt sayings wrought out of their own experiences. The natural ruggedness of Scotland seems to have had an influence on the speech of the people, for their proverbs abound in direct, plain-spoken warnings and counsels. They are rarely elegant, not infrequently rough and even at times vulgar, though pure Gaelic proverbs are strikingly free from vulgarisms; on the other hand they are bright and witty, which atones for much of their harshness and shows the presence of good nature and a kindly spirit. The proverbs in common use among the Welsh are more religious than those that are found elsewhere. Apart from the sayings of the Jewish Rabbis, which make up the greater number of Hebrew proverbs, there are more Welsh phrases that are suggested by the Bible than can be found in any other part of the world.

Gaelic maxims closely resemble those spoken in the north of Ireland and in the Isle of Man owing to their Celtic origin. The sayings commonly quoted by the Scotch Highlanders may be classed among the best for they never commend wrong nor speak slightingly of virtue. In studying them one is impressed with their constant approval of industry, self-control, and kindness. Not a few are witty and some are flippant, but it is rare to find one that indicates a bitter or vindictive spirit. While the proverbs of other lands sometimes sneer at women, those spoken by the Highlanders refer to them as the honoured companions of the home and worthy of the highest respect. “Who speaks ill of his wife dishonours himself,” is a Gaelic saying that reflects the tone of all the proverbs of the people.

The French take great pains in forming their maxims and, though they are sometimes trifling and boastful and show conceit, they are sparkling and what may be called catchy. The French have always liked bright and glittering mots and clever turns of thought.

The Italians like the French are inclined to use trifling phrases. Many commend honourable dealing and speak in the highest terms of virtue; some are extremely beautiful in thought and expression, but on the whole they lack seriousness and are marred by selfish counsels, suspicion, and revenge. “I think,” said the elder Disraeli, “that every tenth proverb in an Italian collection is some cynical or some selfish maxim; a book of the world for worldlings.” It is to be regretted that a greater emphasis should not be placed on confidence and consideration by the Italians in their sayings than on the duty of self-defence and the pleasure of retaliation for wrong.

Spaniards are more grave in their adages than either the French or Italians—sometimes their expressions are so stately that it seems almost impossible that plain people should use them in conversation. They command attention by their thoughtfulness and have a certain charm by reason of their chivalrous spirit and gallantry, yet they are marred by an apparent disrespect for women.

Hollanders, like Scotchmen, are fond of humour and so use it in their “ways of speaking” as to make their sayings very attractive. Many of their by-words and saws advise prudence and caution in dealing with men, showing that they are keen judges of human nature and watchful lest they be caught off their guard, and many commend industry and thrift. Yet on the whole they are characterized by a bold and daring spirit which is common to sea-faring folk.

Russians seem to dislike long and playful proverbs for their sayings are terse and grim, often cynical and severe on women, Poles, and Jews. They show little humour though occasionally a facetious expression meets with favour among them. When humour is employed in their proverbs it is apt to be dry and somewhat heavy.

Arabians in Egypt use maxims which in the opinion of Archbishop Trench show “selfishness and utter extinction of all public spirit, the servility which no longer as with an inward shame creeps into men’s acts but utters itself boldly as the avowed law of their lives, the sense of the oppression of the strong, of the insecurity of the weak, and generally the whole character of life, alike outward and inward, as poor, mean, sordid, and ignoble, with only a few faintest glimpses of that romance which one usually attaches to the East.” This description of Arabian maxims does not apply to the sayings of the roving Arabs of the desert but only such as are used about Cairo. Most of the Arabian proverbs found in this volume are taken from Burckhardt’s collection of Cairo sayings. It is a melancholy fact that, in making his collection, Burckhardt tells us that he found but one saying that expressed any faith in human nature. The roving Arabs are more contemplative and take much time in forming their adages. They, in common with the people of Southern India and China, are fond of what is called grouping or cumulative proverbs. Many of the same character are found among the Hebrews and Scottish Highlanders as well as among other people. The following will be sufficient in this place to indicate their nature: “A generous man is nigh unto God, nigh unto man, nigh unto Paradise, far from hell,” and “For four things there is no recall—the spoken word, the arrow that sped from the bow, the march of fate, and time that is passed.” The practice of enumerating many objects in proverbs is very ancient.

The Bulgarians are sombre—sometimes almost despairing in their proverbs. It may be said of those that they quote, as Pencho Slaveikoff has said of their folk-songs, that “There is but one feature common to them and that is the breath of heaviness. It is the breath of a stricken soul, stricken with the bludgeonings of fate.” They are melancholy to the extreme and it is no wonder when their history is considered. None but men whose hearts were heavy could quote such phrases as these: “God is not sinless, He created the world”; “In every village is the grave of Christ”; “A long dark night—the year”; “The earth is man’s only friend”; “God’s feet are of wool, His hands are of iron”; “If misfortune has not found you, wait a moment, you will find it”; “One guest hates another and the host hates both of them”; and “If a man is doomed to live medicine will be found always.”

The Japanese are lively and humorous in their sayings and are fond of figurative expressions and similitudes. The use of pithy sentences is so general among them that Japan has been called “The Land of Proverbs.” Though near neighbours to the Chinese their sayings are much lighter and refer to conditions and things as they appear on the surface.

The Chinese are thoughtful, dignified, serious, and businesslike in their aphorisms. Their similes are sometimes very beautiful and their proverbial counsels strong. They are fond of philosophizing regarding the results of certain courses of action. The duty of virtuous conduct, morality, loyalty to friends, hospitality, and respect for parents and teachers is constantly emphasized in the common phrases of the people. One great fault of Chinese proverbs is their prolixity. Some of their sayings are very old, particularly those attributed to Confucius; many bear a strong resemblance to the maxims of the ancient Greeks. The Chinese rarely quote their proverbs thoughtlessly or in a flippant manner, for they hold them in great respect as “the sayings of the wise.”

The people of India make frequent use of similes and are fond of throwing their set phrases in the form of questions. Mr. Christian’s description of Behar sayings is applicable to those used in other sections of India: “There is a general absence in them of an elevating tone,” he says—“a want of high ideal such as one would expect to find in the sayings of wisdom left by the sages of old. There is no ethical principle or choice moral maxim conveyed in them; they rather incline to selfishness and cynicism. Self-interest is their keynote and worldliness their one tune.” In seeking a cause for this sordid characteristic he ventures the surmise that, “Perhaps this is the natural outcome of a religion dissevered from morality and ages of grovelling subjection.”

Americans have few proverbs owing to the newness of the country and the fact that people from every land enter into the national life. So-called “American proverbs” are not strictly proverbs but phrases that have grown out of sectional conditions or peculiar circumstances. The Redmen—or Indians—had their favourite axioms that were commonly short and that indicated a prevailing bondage to superstition and suspicion of the good offices of men. Some were very shrewd but they were devoid of buoyancy or hopefulness. The early settlers brought the proverbs of their ancestors with them to their new homes. Those now in use in America are from other countries; the few that are cherished and used by the Creoles, and that seem peculiar to them, were for the most part brought from the home lands and paraphrased to conform to new conditions. Preference was given particularly to such as were picturesque, vivid, and witty. Some are grotesque in their new phrasing. Negro or plantation proverbs are uncouth, superstitious, and of narrow vision, but indicate a shrewd sense of human nature, a good judgment of men, and a ready grasp of humorous situations. The Negroes are fond of laughing at themselves and delight in giving a new and quaint rendering of some “white man’s saying,” never hesitating to use it on occasions even when it reflects on themselves.

It must always be remembered that, while the proverbs of a nation indicate to a large extent the character of the people, “proverb making is not the same as proverb keeping,” and men are “never kept right by proverbs.” There are good people in lands where evil maxims abound and depraved men in sections where exhortations to virtue and morality are common.

It has been thought strange that intelligent people should make the weather a topic of conversation. “When folks have nothing to talk about,” says a German proverb, “they talk about the weather,” but wise men as well as fools discuss changes in atmospheric conditions, for comfort and health often depend on rain or sunshine, heat or cold. It takes but little knowledge of human nature to understand the marked influence that the “way of the wind” has on the temper of men. “Do business with men when the wind is in the north-west,” and “When the wind is in the east ’tis good for neither man nor beast,” are adages in common use. Furthermore, the success or failure of human undertaking is often dependent on clear or cloudy skies. Emerson once said in justification of conversation on the subject of the weather: “We are pensioners of the wind. The weathercock is the wisest man. All our prosperity, enterprise, temper, come and go with the fickle air.”

So much depends on the heat and cold, clouds and winds and mists, that men have sought for centuries to discover their meaning, and as a result thousands of weather proverbs have taken form and been repeated by succeeding generations.

Most of them are based on local conditions or prevailing superstitions or have been formed from a limited knowledge of physical causes, and are therefore unreliable; but that does not justify the condemnation of all nor warrant the sneer that they are nothing more than “fossil wisdom.” A large number are trustworthy, particularly those that relate to the near future. “Some are nuggets of pure gold,” says Dr. Humphreys of the United States Weather Bureau, “for they correctly state the actual order of sequence, as determined by innumerable observations, even when the cause for such an order was not in the least understood by those who discovered it.”

Some thirty years ago the United States Government thought weather proverbs of sufficient importance to gather a large number from all parts of the country and publish the collection in a volume of 148 pages.

Though there are many old sayings that relate to health they are less numerous than those referring to the weather. Those that advise self-control in eating and drinking, the avoidance of unnecessary exposure, and the danger of evil habits are worthy of the highest commendation, but most of the health proverbs are valueless, having come into use when medical science was crude and people depended to a great extent on signs and omens.

It is amusing to read that when the nightcaps were worn men gravely said: “Cover your head by day as much as you will, by night as much as you can”; yet there was a reason for the admonition, as draughts of cold air constantly found their way through the cracks and crevices of houses. In old Spain people who early in the spring substituted light-weight clothing for heavy winter garments were warned of the danger through the adage, “He that would be healthy must wear his winter clothing in summer,” meaning that the adoption of summer clothing should be delayed until late in the season. The wiseacres of France once admonished the young that, “To rise at five, dine at nine, sup at five, go to bed at nine, makes a man live ninety and nine,” sometimes varying the form by saying, “To rise at six, eat at ten, sup at six, go to bed at nine, makes a man live ten times ten.” The people of Hindustan had an adage that “He that eats mot (i.e., vitches) is strong and able to storm a fort.” The Tamil peasants were sure that “No matter what may be eaten, if four dates are taken afterwards the whole will be digested,” and some advised, “When a severe illness comes eat bread and onions.”

The more ignorant the community, the more absolutely it depends on signs and omens; savages are always slaves to their fancies. When people in favoured lands quote proverbs that are based on superstition they do so with hesitancy or with a smile, knowing that they appeal to the credulity of their hearers. Nearly all the superstitions of civilized communities are inheritances of the past. It is not strange that men, unable to explain the laws of nature, should attribute the evils of life to supernatural influences. “Superstitions are the shadows of great truths.” The minds of our forefathers were haunted with the belief that the unseen world was inhabited by fairies, goblins, and devils who busied themselves with the affairs of men. Even God, whose love is as the light, was thought by them to be moved by caprice and often visited good and evil on His children according to their faithfulness in the use of charms and auguries. It is no wonder that in medieval times many people permitted themselves to be dominated by fears and forebodings. “He who looks for freets,” says an old Scotch proverb, “freets will follow him.”

As a result of the prevalence of superstition in the days of our forefathers and its present dominant influence in uncivilized lands, a multitude of rhymes and proverbs have come into use as warnings against injury from unseen powers and as precepts regarding “lucky” and “unlucky” times and procedures.

Reference has been made to the use of similes and comparisons and to the grouping of objects in familiar sayings. Other forms are no less striking, as, for example, the Tamil practice of prefixing “It is said” to many adages, and the almost universal liking for aphorisms in the form of questions, as when the Persians ask “Why do those who preach repentance seldom repent?” and the Kashmiri people, suffering under oppression, inquire “What answer will the meat give to the knife?” As questions call for answers, a large number of what may be termed “retorting proverbs” have become popular; thus in Scotland when one shows too much inquisitiveness regarding another’s character or property he is told to “Ask the tapster if his ale is gude,” and in Bengal when a man thinks of seeking aid from an improvident person his friends will say “He has a pot, but no camphor in it.”

Proverbs are frequently expressed in a way that indicate they are intended to be derisive. Men will sneer at their fellow men, taunt them and make sarcastic remarks regarding them, no matter how unkind and unwise it may be for them to do so. Thus the Osmanli peasants say “The excellent dog bites his master,” when referring to one who seeks his own advantage in serving another, and the native of Hindustan repeats the phrase—“For beauty, a camel; for singing, an ass,” when wishing to describe a neighbour whom he dislikes.

Not infrequently quotations are used, as when the Scotch say, “‘Mair haste the waur speed,’ quo’ the wee tailor to the lang thread,” and the Chinese declare that “Confucius said, ‘A man without distant care must have near sorrow.’”

More curious than the embodiment of quotations is the throwing of a proverb into the form of conversation. In Southern India, for example, we find the following: “The owl and the hen waited together for the morning; ‘The light is of use to me,’ said the hen; ‘But of what use is it to you?’”—and in Arabia: “The mouse fell from the roof. ‘Take some refreshments,’ said the cat. ‘Stand thou off,’ was the reply.”

Rhyming proverbs are popular everywhere, for they give the impression of authority and have a certain charm because of their usual quaintness; furthermore, they are easily remembered. English couplets such as these are familiar: “A stitch in time saves nine”; “Birds of a feather flock together”; “Truth may be blamed, but shall never be shamed”; “A friend in need is a friend in deed”; “What cannot be cured must be endured”; and “Some go to law for the wagging of a straw.”

“That we like what is like is attested by a thousand facts,” said Archbishop Trench; so we have a multitude of rhyming proverbs that are quoted by all classes of men in all parts of the world. It is often difficult to translate them and preserve their exact meanings, and even when good English renderings are secured they are apt to be without the charm that belonged to the originals. Isaac Disraeli has well said of rhyming proverbs, “Some appear to have been the favourite lines of some ancient poem,” and he further reminds us that “Many of the pointed verses of Boileau and Pope have become proverbial.”

Among sayings that appeal to all classes, particularly to children and young people, are what may be called whimsical proverbs. In the past, when education was less general than now, people delighted in quoting sentences that contained some concealed shaft of humour, hidden meaning, or verbal quibble that called for quickness of thought in order to perceive their significance and aim, or that attracted attention because of their unusual choice or arrangement of words. Sometimes the saying was in the form of an alliteration, as, for example, “Providence provides for the prudent” and “As fit as a fritter for a friar’s mouth”; sometimes it was a mere catch expression, as when the English said, “In a shoulder of veal there are twenty and two good bits,” meaning that though there are twenty bits in a shoulder of veal, there are only two that are good; or when the natives of Hindustan declared that “One and one make eleven,” or when the modern Greeks ask, “Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, whom had they for a father?” Sometimes it was a play on words, as when in Scotland it was said that “May-be’s are na aye honey bees,” in Wales that “The butter is in the cow’s horns,” and in America that “Sherry cobblers mend no shoes.”

There are many forms of whimsical proverbs, but nearly all are based on some unusual arrangement of words or are of the nature of puns and riddles and are of a humorous nature.

Proverbs are often carried from one land to another by emigrants, tourists, missionaries, tradesmen, and seamen. When appropriated by natives they take a form adapted to their new surroundings. As changes of clothing do not alter men’s characters, so modifications in form do not affect the intent of a proverb. The English saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” has the same significance as the Scotch, “A bird in the hand’s worth twa fleein’ by,” the Italian, “A bird in the cage is worth a hundred at large,” the Persian, “A sparrow in the hand is better than a crane in the air,” the Arabian, “A thousand cranes in the air are not worth one sparrow in the fist,” and the French and Irish, “Better a wren in the hand than a crane in the air.”

The tendency of proverbs to travel from one land to another has rendered it impossible to tell whence many familiar sayings came and every attempt to ascertain their origin has proved unavailing. Not a few attributed to the old Greeks and Romans and the sages of Persia and India may have been quoted by them from the aphorisms of the market-places; yet there remain a multitude of unfamiliar “ways of speaking,” that can easily be traced to the place from which they sprang by their formation and the peculiar conditions of life to which they refer.

No attempt has been made in this book to add another collection of proverbs to the large number that have been prepared by students of antiquity, but rather to take advantage of their researches and select and classify a sufficient number of authenticated adages, maxims, aphorisms, phrases, and other popular dicta, to show the forms and grouping to which the common sayings of men are liable, and to add thereto such explanations, notes, and quotations as may be useful or interesting.

The original rendering of the various proverbial quotations has not been given, as by doing so the size of the volume would be greatly enlarged without increasing its value to the general reader; but care has been taken to use only such translations as have been approved by collectors whose competency is beyond question.

Sayings that belong to several of the classes enumerated have generally been given but once to avoid repetition. The language or dialect indicated in parentheses after each proverb is not intended to show its exclusive use but rather to show its most pronounced national affiliation. While many of the sayings are spoken in no other tongue than that indicated, others are used by many people in many lands.

It is hoped that the book will be found interesting and suggestive, and that through it the reader may become better acquainted with the life and purposes of men in other lands and other ages than his own.

“In whatever language it may be written, every line, every word is welcome, that bears the impress of the early days of mankind.”—Max Müller.