Learn more about Proverb
For the music piece by Steve Reich see Proverb (Reich)
A proverb (from the Latin proverbium) is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth based on common sense or the practical experience of mankind. They are often metaphorical. A proverb that describes a basic rule of conduct may also be known as a maxim. If a proverb is distinguished by particularly good style, it may be known as an aphorism.
Proverbs are often borrowed from different languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible and medieval Latin have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Western Europe and even further.
The study of proverbs is called paremiology (from Greek paremia = proverb) and can be dated back as far as Aristotle. Paremiography, on the other hand, is the collection of proverbs. Currently, the foremost proverb scholar in the United States is Wolfgang Mieder, who defines the term proverb as follows:
- "A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.” (Mieder 1985:119; also in Mieder 1993:24)
Subgenres include proverbial expressions (“to bite the dust”), proverbial comparisons (“as busy as a bee”), proverbial interrogatives (“Does a chicken have lips?”) and twin formulas (“give and take”).
Another subcategory are wellerisms, named after Sam Weller from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1837). They are constructed in a triadic manner which consists of a statement (often a proverb), an identification of a speaker (person or animal) and a phrase that places the statement into an unexpected situation. Ex.: “Every evil is followed by some good,” as the man said when his wife died the day after he became bankrupt.
Typical stylistic features of proverbs (as Shirley Arora points out in The Perception of Proverbiality (1984)) are:
- alliteration (Forgive and forget)
- parallelism (Nothing ventured, nothing gained)
- rhyme (When the cat is away, the mice will play)
- ellipsis (Once bitten, twice shy)
Internal features that can be found quite frequently include :
- hyperbole (All is fair in love and war)
- paradox (The longest way around is the shortest way home)
- personification (Hunger is the best cook)
To make the respective statement more general most proverbs are based on a metaphor. Further typical features of the proverb are its shortness (average: seven words), and the fact that its author is generally unknown (otherwise it would be a quotation).
- Mieder, Wolfgang. 1989. American Proverbs: A Study of Texts and Contexts. New York: Lang.
- ---. 2004. Proverbs – A Handbook. Greenwood Press. London, 2004.
- ---. 1993. Proverbs Are Never Out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Taylor, Archer. 1931. The Proverb. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- ---. 1962. The Proverb, and An Index to The Proverb. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates.
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