Potpourri of provocative proverbs | Sunday Observer

Potpourri of provocative proverbs

24 May, 2020

I love collecting proverbs and reading them over and over again. Whenever I see a new collection of proverbs at a bookshop I grab it with both hands. My association with proverbs is pretty long. Sometimes I come across contradictory proverbs and I am at a loss as to which one is correct. Anyway, pursuing proverbs remains one of my favourite hobbies.

A proverb is a traditional saying which offers advice or presents a moral in a short and pithy manner. Paradoxically, many phrases which are called ‘proverbial phrases’ are not proverbs. Expressions such as ‘the proverbial fly on the wall’ or ‘as dead as the proverbial dodo’ do not allude to any proverb.

Different things

Proverbs fall into three categories. The first category includes abstract statements expressing general truths, such as ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ The second category includes colourful expressions, such as ‘You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” and ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ The third category comprises sayings from traditional wisdom and folklore. Two of them are ‘After dinner rest a while, after supper walk a mile’ and ‘Feed a cold and starve a fever.’

We are unable to explain why different people like different things. The proverb says, ‘There is no accounting for tastes.’ There is a short proverb to the same effect: ‘Tastes differ.’ It is sometimes said such proverbs go out of fashion or degenerate into the cliché. However, such views overlook the fact that while the role of the proverb has changed, its popular currency has remained constant.

Many proverbs have interesting origins. They may come from a story or parable in the Bible or from a celebrated historical incident. Sometimes they may be familiar quotations from English literature. For instance, ‘a land of milk and honey’ is an ideal place where everything is totally satisfactory. You might say Switzerland is a land of milk and honey. The proverb can be traced to the Bible where it occurs several times in reference to God’s promise to his chosen people, the Israelites, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey.

Where there are different ways of reaching our desired goal, we say, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ During the Roman Empire, the Romans built a system of roads, and any of these roads would take a traveller to Rome. Sometimes the proverb may be a reference to the all-pervading historical, cultural, and spiritual influences of Rome. Similarly, ‘a man for all seasons’ is someone who is adaptable, dependable, and respected in all situations.

Popular proverbs

The original Latin phrase referred to Sir Thomas More (1477-1535) who was an author, lawyer, humanist, and a statesman. Later he became Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII.

Shakespeare fans would remember the popular proverb, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ It means that a thing is essentially the same thing, no matter what name is given to it. Shakespeare in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The origin of the proverb ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ is from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ It warns people about the inadvisability of getting into the habit of either borrowing or lending.

Many people discuss their private matters in public. However, the proverb ‘Don’t wash dirty linen in public’ warns us not to do so. Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with originating this proverb. He pointed out the inadvisability of washing your ‘linge sale’ (French) meaning ‘dirty linen’ in public. Some people eat to live and others live to eat, but a proverb warns us that the purpose of eating is to keep us alive. We should not regard eating as an end in itself. Whenever we come across the proverb ‘Eat to live, not live to eat’ we are reminded of the celebrated Greek philosopher Socrates who was a great advocate of the principle that we should eat only to supply our bodily needs.

Some proverbs have undergone minor changes over the years. ‘Empty vessels make the most sound’ is a familiar version of the proverb ‘Empty vessels make the most noise.’ The word ‘vessel’ refers to a container for holding liquid. The emptier it is the louder the sound when you strike it. The proverb warns us that people who lack knowledge and unfit to offer an opinion are often the ones who do the most talking. If you give someone full freedom as they wish, they will eventually do something that damages or destroys them. The proverb says, ‘Give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself.’ However, the original proverb says, ‘Give a thief enough rope and he’ll hang himself.’ Those days thieving was punished by hanging.


We should not think that all the proverbs are true. There are some proverbs based on unreal facts. For instance, we say, ‘Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.’ According to the proverb, if you suffer a devastating blow of a certain type of misfortune, you will not suffer another of the same type. Although this can happen very rarely, you cannot depend on it. The proverb is factually untrue because some buildings and prominent landmarks have been struck many times by lightning.

There are some proverbs which give the same opinion in different words. We use the proverbs, ‘A burnt child dreads the fire’ or ‘Once bitten twice shy’ to mean that a person who has a bad experience of something will avoid it in future. When things go wrong unexpectedly at some stage of our life, however much we are careful. On such occasions we depend on the proverbs ‘Accidents will happen’ or ‘Accidents do happen.’ The original proverb, however, had a slightly longer form, ‘Accidents will happen in the best-regulated families.’ When we start a project properly from the start, paying attention to preparation and planning, then it will turn out well. To convey the same idea we can use two well-known proverbs: ‘A good beginning makes a good ending’ or ‘Well begun is half done.’

Some quotations from well-known writers have become proverbs. Alexander Pope in his ‘Essay on Criticism’ says, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” He reminds us that having a slight knowledge of a subject can tempt us to overestimate our ability to deal with certain serious problems. The proverb, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ is a line from Alexander Pope’s poem ‘Essay on Criticism’ written in 1711.

He warns us that ill-informed people may interfere in a delicate situation from which more knowledgeable people will stand back. ‘Might is right’ is a popular proverb which means that powerful people get what they want. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote about unchecked power in a few words; “I want it; I order it; my will is sufficient justification.”

Contradictory proverbs

Certain proverbs are contradictory and the reader may not know which one to follow. When we leave our loved ones, our feelings of affection for them become stronger. This is confirmed by the proverb, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ However, another proverb, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ gives a somewhat contrary message.

Today some proverbs have been shortened for convenience, but they have the same meaning. When you wish to advise someone not to base their expectations on circumstances that may turn out as they want, you use the proverb ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’ However, most people simply say, ‘Don’t count your chickens.’

The proverb, ‘Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face’ warns you not to let your grievances lead into punishing people in a way that can harm you. Sometimes, the proverb is shortened to ‘Cut off your nose.’

In a situation of great danger you cannot expect altruism from others. People have to find their own salvation. The proverb, ‘Every man for himself’ emphasizes this fact. But it has two longer versions. One is ‘Every man for himself, and God for us all.’ The other is ‘Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.’

The proverb ‘Silence is golden’ emphasizes not only the peacefulness of silence but also the wisdom of discretion as opposed to meaningless chatter and gossip. The fuller form of the proverb is ‘Speech is silver, but silence is golden.’

Some proverbs have deep philosophical meanings. The proverb ‘Still waters run deep’ is not about the water in a river. It says quiet, apparently unemotional people may have hidden depths to their personalities. Factually, where the water in a river is calm, it is usually deep.

Collecting proverbs or browsing through a collection of proverbs can be a fascinating hobby as well as a way to enhance your knowledge.

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