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

Whimsical Proverbs

Including Tricks, Catches, Puns, Riddles, Alliterative Phrases, and Expressions That Play on Words

A crow fought with a crow, a crow conquered a crow. (Yoruba—West African).
“The Yorubas amuse themselves by repeating as many times as possible, without taking breath, sentences such as the foregoing, containing a recurrence of similar sounds—a good gymnastic for the tongue. At the end of each repetition of the sentence a bystander cries ‘one,’ ‘two,’ etc., and he who repeats the sentence oftenest without a falter is victor.”—Richard F. Burton.
This phrase is suggestive of the three old English charms for the hiccough, which were to be repeated three times in one breath for a complete cure:
  • “When a twister twisting would twist him a twist,
  • For twisting a twist three twists he will twist;
  • But if one of the twists untwists from the twist,
  • The twist untwisting untwists the twist.”
  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
  • A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
  • If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
  • Where is the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?”
  • “Robert Rowley rolled a round roll round,
  • A round roll Robert Rowley rolled round;
  • Where rolled the round roll Robert Rowley rolled round?”
  • As fit as a fritter for a friar’s mouth. (English).

    A flea, a fly, and a flitch of bacon. (English).
    Humorously declared to be a Yorkshireman’s arms, because a Yorkshireman will suck anyone’s blood like a flea, drink out of anyone’s cup like a fly, and is good for nothing till he’s hung, like a flitch of bacon.

    As pert as a pearmonger. (English).
    A mere alliteration without any special significance.
    “As bold as brass,” “As brown as a berry.” “As busy as Batty.” “As cold as a cucumber.” “As cunning as a crowder”—a fiddler. “As drunk as a drum.” “As dull as a Dutchman.” “As fine as a fiddle.” “As hard as a horn.” “As kind as a kite.” “As thick as thieves.” “As true as a turtle.” “As weak as water.” (English).

    A wooden horse and cloth saddle, one was invited and three went. (Hindustani).
    This is a kind of conundrum: Two men carrying a Dolee with one person within.

    By Tree, Pol, and Pen, you shall know the Cornish men. (English).
    John Ray explains the meaning of this old saying as follows:
    “These three names are the dictionary of such surnames as are originally Cornish, and though nouns in sense, I may fitly term them prepositions. Tree signifieth town—hence Tre-fry, Tre-lawney, Tree-vanion, etc.; Pol signifieth a head—hence Pol-wheel; and Pen signifieth a top—hence Pen-tire, Pen-rose, Pen-kevil, etc.”
    Francis Grose informs us in his Provincial Glossary that some people add a fourth ambiguous word, making the proverb read: “By Tree, Pol, Pen, and Car, you shall know the Cornish men,” Car signifying a rock, hence a Car-mine, Car-zeu, etc.

    Christmas today and May-day tomorrow. (Gaelic).
    “This is the result of an ingenious calculation showing that if Christmas day falls on Monday May-day will be Tuesday. It is generally but not absolutely correct.”—Alexander Nicolson.

    Dark and black he goes to the sky, and then falls back, after giving a cry. (Mexican).
    Signifying a rocket.

    Five seize, twice sixteen tear, all the rest the flavour share. (Bengalese).
    The five fingers grasp the food, twice sixteen teeth divide and masticate it, and the tongue tastes it—while the whole body is refreshed and strengthened by it.
    The proverb is frequently used in referring to different members of a household—each responsible for his own work, yet each dependent on all the others.

    Five score of men, money, and pins; six score of all other things. (English).
    Sometimes rendered: “Five score’s a hundred of men, money, and pins; six score’s a hundred of all other things.”
    “The people of Norway and Iceland, according to the Thesaurus of Hickes, had a method of computation special to themselves, which consisted in the addition of the words tolfraedr, tolfraed, or tolfraet (whence our ‘twelve’), which made ten signify twelve, a hundred equivalent to a hundred and twenty, a thousand represent a thousand and two hundred, and so on in proportion. This arose from the circumstance of these two nations having two decades or tens; a lesser, common to other nations, consisting of ten units, and a greater, comprising twelve (tolf) units. Thus the addition of the word tolfraedr or tolfraer converted the hundred into not ten times ten but ten times twelve—that is a hundred and twenty. This tolfraedic mode of reckoning by the greater decades, maintains Hickes, is still retained by us in reckoning certain articles by the number twelve, which the Swedes call dusin, the French douzaine, and ourselves a dozen; and in mercantile circles, he adds, as to the number, weight, and measure of several things, our hundred represents the greater tolfraedic hundred which is composed of ten times twelve. Thence, doubtless, was derived the current mode of reckoning by six score to the hundred.”—John Brand in Popular Antiquities.

    Fortune favours fools. (English).
    An alliteration.
    “Some folks will have it that fortune favours fools; as if Providence had no kindness for the wise and bestowed all her benefits on the ignorant; or as if a man could not be fortunate without being reckoned an idiot or a silly illiterate fellow in their rash conjectures, as well as ridiculous reflections.”—Oswald Dykes.

  • “’Tis gross error held in schools
  • That fortune always favours fools.”
  • John Gay.
  • “But since their good opinion therein so cools,
  • That they say as oft: God sendeth fortune to fools;
  • In that, as fortune without your wit gave it,
  • So can your wit not keep it when you have it.”
  • John Heywood.
  • Frost and fraud both end in foul. (English).
    A favourite saying of Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Chancellor.

    Health to wear it, strength to tear it, and money to buy a new one. (English).
    Spoken on seeing someone with a new article of dress.

    He that has an ill wife should eat muckle butter. (Scotch).
    He that has an ill wife should eat much but her—that is, he should eat much without her.

    He that loves glass without a G, take away L and that is he. (English).

    Het kail cauld, nine days auld, spell ye that in four letters. (Scotch).
    The key to this childish proverbial puzzle is found in the word “that”—t-h-a-t.

    He who marries a maiden marries a pockfu’ o’ pleasure; he who marries a widow marries a pockfu’ o’ pleas—sure. (Scotch).

    If this amounts to that, how much will that come to? (Tamil).
    Equivalent to the question: “What is the difference between six and half a dozen?”

    In a shoulder of veal there are twenty and two good bits. (English).
    That is, there are twenty bits but only two that are good.

    In a very dark room is a dead one, the living one handling the dead one, and the dead one is shouting. (Mexican).
    A kind of riddle referring to a piano.

    In whom it is, in him is everything; in whom it is not, what hath he? He who hath acquired it, what lacketh he? In whom it is not, what hath he acquired? (Palestinian Hebrew).
    The reference is to wisdom.

    It has a trunk, but it is not an elephant; it eats men and cattle, but it is not a tiger; whatever it eats, it eats on the spot. It vanishes with a blast of music. It is born from water. (Assamese).
    A riddle referring to a mosquito.

    Lift me up and I’ll tell you more, lay me down as I was before. (Scotch).
    This phrase is used as a practical joke on people who are given too much curiosity. The first part of the phrase is cut, scratched, or painted on the upper side of a large stone where it may be easily seen and read. When the stone is lifted there is nothing to be found under it, but the curious investigator soon discovers the last part of the phrase inscribed on the reverse side of the stone, and he quickly drops it back in its place.

    One and one make eleven. (Hindustani, Kashmiri).
    Used to indicate the advantage of concerted action.

    One became two, friends became enemies, the crow became a dove. (Kashmiri).
    An old man’s description of himself—One man has become two in that he is obliged to lean on a staff; friends have become enemies in that his teeth, that served him well in youth, are gone; and the crow has become a dove in that his black hair has turned to gray.

    One, two, three, four, are just half a score. (English).
    1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10.

    Providence provides for the provident. (English).

    Reckon right, and February has one and thirty days. (English).
    But unfortunately the reckoning by which February is found to contain thirty-one days has been forgotten or was never known.

    Rise, daughter, and go to your daughter, for your daughter’s daughter has a daughter. (Scotch).
    Simply a whimsical phrase referring to four generations.

    Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, whom had they for a father? (Modern Greek).
    Alexander Negris says that this question, once asked one who was passing an examination, threw him into great perplexity. It is generally used when a person shows unusual stupidity or inability to comprehend some simple proposition. It is similar to the old English question asked children—“Who was the father of Zebedee’s children?”

    That which adheres to or follows everyone. (Hindustani).
    Referring to a shadow.

    The crab of the wood is sauce very good for the crab of the sea, but the wood of the crab is sauce for a drab that will not her husband obey. (English).
    The crab of the wood is a land crab; the wood of the crab is the wood of the crab-apple tree; and a drab is a slatternly woman.

    The father is not yet born, but the son has taken his stand behind. (Behar).
    A riddle proverb referring to smoke.
    The saying is used when one has been waiting many days for some event or benefit. As a father is born before a son, so fire is kindled before the smoke appears; but when one’s expectations have been fixed for a long time the natural order seems to be reversed—the son comes before the father and the smoke before the fire.
    “The father was still in the pod, the son went to a wedding party.” “The son is not yet born, but a beat of the drum proclaims the event beforehand.” “Before the cudgel and his forehead have met, he cries out ‘O father! O father!’” “The trees in the orchard have not yet been planted, but the woodworms have settled down beforehand.” (Behar). “The jack fruit is yet on the tree, but the oil has been already applied to the lips”—to prevent its sticking. (Urdu). “We have no son and yet are giving him a name.” (Spanish, Telugu). “While the cotton crop was still in the field, he said ‘Three cubits for Poli and six for me’”—three cubits of cloth for Poli, a feminine name representing a cousin. “Tying beads round an unborn child.” (Telugu). “Soon enough to cry ‘Chuck’ when its oot o’ the shell.” (Scotch). “Don’t reckon your eggs before they are laid.” (Italian). “To celebrate the triumph before the victory.” (Latin). “Do not reckon your chickens before they are hatched.” “Count not four except you have them in a wallet.” (English). “Chickens are slow in coming from unlaid eggs.” (German).

    The four S’s which they say true lovers should possess. (Spanish).
    A Sancho Panza proverb.
    Sabio, Solicito, Secreto, y Solo.
    Sapient, Solicitous, Secret, and Solitary.

    There are two good men: One dead, the other unborn. (Chinese).

    This world’s a widdle as weel as a riddle. (Scotch).
    This world is a constant wriggle as well as a puzzle.

    Three blue beans in a blue bladder. (English).

    Three P’s of York: Pretty, Poor, Proud. (English).
    “Three P’s of Italy: Poison, Pride, Piles.”

    To flee from the plague with three L’s is a good science. (Spanish).
    Luego, Lejos, y Largo tiempo.
    Immediately, to a distance, to remain for a long time.

    To stumble at the letters R. R. (Spanish).
    To be drunk, because an intoxicated man cannot, by reason of his thick tongue, pronounce the letter R twice.

    Two are better than three; woe to the one which goes but never returns. (Hebrew).
    It is better to be strong and able to walk without the aid of a staff. Woe is it for one’s youth to pass, for it never returns.

    Ware and Wades-mill are worth all London. (English).
    The proverb seems to refer to the town of Ware and part of a village called Wades-mill, two miles north, whereas the reference is probably to ware as merchandise.
    “This I assure you, is a masterpiece of the vulgar wits of this country, wherewith they endeavour to amuse travellers, as if Ware, a thoroughfare market, and Wades-mill, part of a village lying two miles north thereof, were so prodigiously rich as to countervail the wealth of London. The fallacy lieth in the homonymy of Ware, here not taken for that town so named, but appellatively for all vendible commodities. It is rather a riddle than a proverb.”—John Ray.

    When hempe is spun, England is undone. (English).
    “The word hemp is formed of the letters H-E-M-P-E, the initials of Henry, Edward, Mary, Philip, and Elizabeth, and supposed to threaten that after the reigns of those princes England would be lost—i.e., conquered. Fuller remarks that, to keep this saying in countenance, it may pretend to some truth, for, on the death of Elizabeth, and accession of King James I the kingdom, by its junction with Scotland, took the title of Great Britain, by royal proclamation, and thereby the name of England was in one sense lost. Some interpreted this distich more literally, supposing it meant that, when all the hemp in England was expended, there would be an end of our naval force, which would indeed be fact, if no more could be procured.”—Francis Grose.

    When the way is long you shorten it with your feet, not with a hatchet. (Oji—West Africa).
    This proverb contains a pun in the original and may be read in the two ways: “When the way is long you cut it off with your feet, not with a hatchet,” and “When the way is long you pass over or through it with your feet, not with a hatchet.”

    Which is the fairest view of Scotland? (Scotch).
    Answer—the road that leads out of it, or the road that leads to England.
    This old proverbial riddle is sometimes quoted by Scotchmen as a reflection on the poverty of their own land, and sometimes used as a sneer at other Scotchmen who have left their homes to find employment in England. Another proverb often quoted in Scotland is, “England is fat feeding ground for North Country cattle.”
    “I am to carry you to old Father Crackenthrop’s, and then you are within a spit and a stride of Scotland, as the saying is. But mayhaps you may think twice of going thither for all that; for Old England is fat feeding ground for north country cattle.”—Sir Waller Scott.
    “In all my travels I never met with any one Scotchman but that was a man of sense. I believe everybody of that country that has any, leaves it as fast as he can.”—Francis Lockier.

    White as a dove, black as pitch; it talks and has no tongue, it runs and has no feet. (Mexican).
    The reference is to a letter written on white paper with black ink.

    Who swims on sin shall sink in sorrow. (English).
    An alliteration.

    Why does Peter stir the fire? (Spanish).
    To warm himself.
    Similar to the old English question asked children: “Why does a miller wear a white hat?” The answer being, “To keep his head warm.”

    Without being a mule in the mill, I go with my eyes covered and feet apart. (Mexican).
    A riddle referring to a pair of scissors.

    You cannot spell Yarmouth steeple right. (English).
    John Ray declares that the saying is also applied to Chesterfield Spire in Derbyshire.
    “This is a play on the word ‘right.’ Yarmouth spire is awry or crooked, and cannot be set right or straight by spelling. Some who choose to go further afield for a meaning consider the word ‘spell’ as a verb, signifying to conjure with spells, and make the meaning to be, You cannot, by any spell, set Yarmouth spire straight or upright.”—Francis Grose.

    You get gold out of earth and earth out of gold. (Telugu).
    Your land produces that which enriches you, and you buy more land with your wealth.

    You have drawn the letter M. (Modern Greek).
    This is equivalent to calling one a fool.
    You have drawn, as in a lottery, the letter M, which is the initial letter of Mupos—i.e., dull, stupid.