#FolkloreThursday: Proverb

#FolkloreThursday: Proverb February 9, 2017

Yo dawg, I heard you like proverbs, so I’m going define a proverb with a proverb so we can proverb while we proverb. Or something.

Photo in public domain from Pixabay.
Photo in public domain from Pixabay.

The wisdom of many, the wit of one is an example of metafolklore (folklore about folklore). It distills the essence of proverbs into a proverb, emphasizing their transmission of communally-held knowledge in the pithy phrasing that probably came from a single speaker. In this post, I’ll define and discuss proverbs, with bunches of examples, because proverbs are fun like that.

Like folk speech and jokes, proverbs belong to the overall category of verbal folklore, but they also cross genre boundaries. Proverbs make their way into cartoons, comics, advertisements, and other forms of media. They can appear in other folklore genres, such as personal narratives or sermons.

We typically define proverbs as metaphorical statements of traditional wisdom. Proverbs are metaphorical in that they use poetic language to describe things symbolically. My favorite example of this is the proverb Don’t cry over spilt milk. We’re not literally talking about milk here, but rather using it metaphorically to talk about regret.

Structurally, proverbs usually follow the form: topic + comment. In some cases this is incredibly simple, with one word representing each part of the structure:

  • Money talks
  • Shit happens
  • Time flies

In many other cases, the topic + comment structure is more complex. In the case of Boys will be boys the topic or subject is equivalent to the commentary. In Two wrongs don’t make a right, the topic does NOT equal the comment but still follows it grammatically.

The phrasing of proverbs, or their texture, is often what we called fixed-phrase (as opposed to free-phrase). Really short proverbs are less likely to exhibit variation at the level of word usage and structure, whereas longer ones might. But basically, once a proverb becomes traditional, it tends to retain its phrasing. It’s always Don’t cry over spilt milk, not Don’t cry over spilt coffee or Don’t cry over evaporated milk. But you might hear You shouldn’t cry over spilt milk.

Unlike other genres of folklore, many proverbs have authors that we can identify. What makes them folkloric is that, despite their origin in literary or historical sources, they pass into oral tradition and begin to accrue variation.

You might be thinking “But wait, if variation is essential to folklore, where’s the variation with proverbs if they’re mostly fixed-phrase?!” I’m glad you asked! Variation is key to folklore but it occurs at more than just the textural level. Variation can also occur in context, in terms of when and how proverbs are employed. Variation also happens at the level of meaning. For instance, in the case of A rolling stone gathers no moss is moss a good thing or a bad thing? Does it represent the kinds of attachments that are desired, or the kind that hold you back?

We study proverbs in large part because they can give us insights into worldview. One of the aspects here I find most fascinating is proverbs that are current in the same culture but which contradict one another (I really want to call these pairs “dueling proverbs” but that probably isn’t a technically correct or useful scholarly category). My favorite examples include:

  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder vs. Familiarity breeds contempt
  • Look before you leap vs. He who hesitates is lost
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover vs. You only get one chance at a first impression

I’ll conclude with another tidbit of knowledge: a proverb scholar is called a paremiologist. How cool is that?! One of my favorite paremiologists is Wolfgang Mieder. His work is pretty accessible if you want to look it up. I’m also a big fan of the proverb guessing game (kinda like Balderdash) called Wise & Otherwise. So, go have fun with proverbs!



Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].

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