AskDefine | Define proverb

Dictionary Definition

proverb n : a condensed but memorable saying embodying some important fact of experience that is taken as true by many people [syn: adage, saw, byword]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Proverbs




  1. A phrase, describing an example of a basic truth, that is transferred to common situations.




Extensive Definition

A proverb (from the Latin proverbium), also called a byword, is a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. 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 phrasing, it may be known as an aphorism.
Proverbs are often borrowed from similar languages and cultures, and sometimes come down to the present through more than one language. Both the Bible (Book of Proverbs) and medieval Latin have played a considerable role in distributing proverbs across Europe, although almost every culture has examples of its own.


The study of proverbs is called paremiology (from Greek παροιμία - paroimía, "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 (a claim based on the fact that he has written or edited over 50 books on the subject, edits the journal Proverbium, has written innumerable articles on proverbs, and is very widely cited by other proverb scholars). Mieder defines the term proverb as follows:
Subgenres include 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.
Yet another category of proverb is the "anti-proverb" (Mieder and Litovkina 2002). In such cases, people twist familiar proverbs to change the meaning. Sometimes the result is merely humorous, but the most spectacular examples result in the opposite meaning of the standard proverb. Examples include, "Nerds of a feather flock together", "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and likely to talk about it," and "Absence makes the heart grow wander".
A similar form is proverbial expressions (“to bite the dust”). The difference is that proverbs are unchangeable sentences, while proverbial expressions permit alterations to fit the grammar of the context.
Another close construction is an allusion to a proverb, such as "The new broom will sweep clean." Proverbs that speak to the political disgruntlement include: “When the Czar spits into the soup dish, it fairly bursts with pride”; “If the Czar be a rhymester, woe be to the poets”; and “The hen of the Czarina herself does not lay swan’s eggs.” While none of these proverbs state directly, “I hate the Czar and detest my situation” (which would have been incredibly dangerous), they do get their points across.
Other well known Russian proverbs include: “Every seed knows its time” (everything comes in time), “you will reap what you sow,” “a titmouse in the hand is better than a crane in the sky” (remarkably similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”), “idleness is the mother of all vices” (similarly, “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”), “God takes care of the one who takes care of himself,” and “chickens are counted in autumn” (“don’t count your chickens until the eggs have hatched”) ( These proverbs have in common the values of diligent work, patience, and gratitude—all of which peasants would teach their children.
Proverbs are found in many parts of the world, but some areas seem to have richer stores of proverbs than others (such as West Africa), while others have hardly any (North and South America) (Mieder 2004:108,109).
Proverbs are often borrowed across lines of language, religion, and even time. For example, a proverb of the approximate form “No flies enter a mouth that is shut” is currently found in Spain, Ethiopia, and many countries in between. It is embraced as a true local proverb in many places and should not be excluded in any collection of proverbs because it is shared by the neighbors. However, though it has gone through multiple languages and millennia, the proverb can be traced back to an ancient Babylonian proverb (Pritchard 1958:146).
Proverbs are used by speakers for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are used as a way of saying something gently, in a veiled way (Obeng 1996). Other times, they are used to carry more weight in a discussion, a weak person is able to enlist the tradition of the ancestors to support his position. Proverbs can also be used to simply make a conversation/discussion more lively. In many parts of the world, the use of proverbs is a mark of being a good orator.
The study of proverbs has application in a number of fields. Clearly, those who study folklore and literature are interested in them, but scholars from a variety of fields have found ways to profitably incorporate the study proverbs. For example, they have been used to study abstract reasoning of children, acculturation of immigrants, intelligence, the differing mental processes in mental illness, cultural themes, etc. Proverbs have also been incorporated into the strategies of social workers, teachers, preachers, and even politicians. (For the deliberate use of proverbs as a propaganda tool by Nazis, see Mieder 1982.)
There are collections of saying that give suggestions for how to play games, such as dominoes (Borajo et al 1990) and the Oriental board game go (Mitchell 2001). However, these are not prototypical proverbs in that their application is limited to one domain.

Sources for proverb study

For those interested in further study of proverbs, a number of sources are available. A seminal work in the field is Archer Taylor's The Proverb, later republished together with an index, by Wolfgang Mieder (1985). A good introduction to the study of proverbs is Mieder's 2004 volume, Proverbs: A Handbook. Mieder has also published a series of bibliography volumes on proverb research, as well as a large number of articles and other books in the field. For those interested in proverbs of Africa, Stan Nussbaum has edited a large collection on proverbs of Africa, published on a CD, including reprints of out-of-print collections, original collections, and works on analysis, bibliography, and application of proverbs to Christian ministry (1998). For those interested in comparing proverbs across Europe, Paczolay has published a collection of similar proverbs in 55 languages (1997). Mieder edits an academic journal of proverb study, Proverbium. A volume containing articles on a wide variety of topics touching on proverbs was edited by Mieder and Alan Dundes (1994/1981).
There are some serious websites related to the study of proverbs (in addition to those that list proverbs from various areas):


  • Borajo, Daniel, Juan Rios, M. Alicia Perez, and Juan Pazos. 1990. Dominoes as a domain where to use proverbs as heuristics. Data & Knowledge Engineering 5:129-137.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang. 1982. Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore. The Journal of American Folklore 95, No. 378, pp. 435-464.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang. 1982; 1990; 1993. International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography, with supplements. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang. 1994. Wise Words. Essays on the Proverb. New York: Garland.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang. 2001. International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. Supplement III (1990-2000). Bern, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang. 2004. Proverbs: A Handbook. (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks). Greenwood Press.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang and Alan Dundes. 1994. The wisdom of many: essays on the proverb. (Originally published in 1981 by Garland.) Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Mieder, Wolfgang and Anna Tothne Litovkina. 2002. Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs. DeProverbio.
  • Mitchell, David. 2001. Go Proverbs (reprint of 1980). ISBN 0-9706193-1-6. Slate and Shell.
  • Nussbaum, Stan. 1998. The Wisdom of African Proverbs (CD-ROM). Colorado Springs: Global Mapping International.
  • Obeng, S. G. 1996. The Proverb as a Mitigating and Politeness Strategy in Akan Discourse. Anthropological Linguistics 38(3), 521-549.
  • Paczolay, Gyula. 1997. European Proverbs in 55 Languages. Veszpre’m, Hungary.
  • Pritchard, James. 1958. The Ancient Near East, vol. 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Raymond, Joseph. 1956. Tension in proverbs: more light on international understanding. Western Folklore 15.3:153-158.
  • Taylor, Archer. 1985. The Proverb and an index to "The Proverb", with an Introduction and Bibliography by Wolfgang Mieder. Bern: Peter Lang.

Collections of proverbs on the Web

Collections of proverbs from many cultures are available on the Web. The following is only a sample list. The practices of the translators vary greatly.


proverb in Asturian: Adaxu
proverb in Guarani: Ñe'ẽnga
proverb in Azerbaijani: Atalar sözü
proverb in Belarusian: Прыказка
proverb in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Прыказка
proverb in Breton: Krennlavar
proverb in Catalan: Refrany
proverb in Czech: Přísloví
proverb in Welsh: Dihareb
proverb in Danish: Ordsprog
proverb in German: Sprichwort
proverb in Estonian: Vanasõna
proverb in Modern Greek (1453-): Παροιμία
proverb in Spanish: Proverbio
proverb in Esperanto: Proverbo
proverb in Persian: ضرب‌المثل
proverb in French: Proverbe
proverb in Irish: Seanfhocal
proverb in Galician: Proverbio
proverb in Korean: 속담
proverb in Hindi: लोकोक्ति
proverb in Ido: Proverbo
proverb in Indonesian: Peribahasa
proverb in Ossetian: Æмбисонд
proverb in Icelandic: Málsháttur
proverb in Italian: Proverbio
proverb in Hebrew: פתגם
proverb in Georgian: ანდაზა
proverb in Latin: Sententia (gnome)
proverb in Luxembourgish: Sprachwuert
proverb in Limburgan: Sjpraekwoord
proverb in Hungarian: Közmondás
proverb in Malagasy: Ohabolana
proverb in Malayalam: പഴഞ്ചൊല്ല്
proverb in Maori: Rārangi whakataukī
proverb in Malay (macrolanguage): Peribahasa
proverb in Dutch: Spreekwoord
proverb in Japanese: ことわざ
proverb in Norwegian: Ordspråk
proverb in Norwegian Nynorsk: Ordtak
proverb in Occitan (post 1500): Provèrbi
proverb in Polish: Przysłowie
proverb in Portuguese: Ditado popular
proverb in Romanian: Proverb
proverb in Russian: Пословица
proverb in Tswana: Maele
proverb in Slovak: Príslovie
proverb in Finnish: Sananlasku
proverb in Swedish: Ordspråk
proverb in Vietnamese: Tục ngữ
proverb in Turkish: Atasözü
proverb in Walloon: Spot
proverb in Yiddish: אויסדרוק
proverb in Chinese: 谚语

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

adage, ana, analects, aphorism, apophthegm, apothegm, axiom, bromide, byword, catchword, cliche, coin a phrase, collected sayings, commonplace, current saying, dictate, dictum, distich, epigram, expression, gnome, golden saying, homily, maxim, moral, mot, motto, oracle, phrase, pithy saying, platitude, precept, prescript, proverbial saying, proverbs, saw, saying, sentence, sententious expression, sloka, stock saying, sutra, teaching, text, truism, verse, wisdom, wisdom literature, wise saying, witticism, word, words of wisdom
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