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Defining a proverb is a difficult task. Proverb scholars often

quote Archer Taylors classic The definition of a proverb is
too difficult to repay the undertaking... An incommunicable
quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is
not. Hence no definition will enable us to identify positively a
sentence as proverbial.[Another common definition is from
Lord John Russell (c. 1850) A proverb is the wit of one, and
the wisdom of many.
More constructively, Mieder has proposed the following
definition, 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.Norrick
created a table of distinctive features to distinguish proverbs
from idioms, cliches, etc.Prahlad distinguishes proverbs from
some other, closely related types of sayings, True proverbs
must further be distinguished from other types of proverbial
speech, e.g. proverbial phrases, Wellerisms, maxims,
quotations, and proverbial comparisons

There are many sayings in English that are commonly referred to as

proverbs, such as weather sayings. Alan Dundes, however, rejects
including such sayings among truly proverbs: Are weather proverbs
proverbs? I would say emphatically 'No!'The definition of proverb has
also changed over the years. For example, the following was labeled A
Yorkshire proverb in 1883, but would not be categorized as a proverb by
most today, as throng as Throp's wife when she hanged herself with a
dish-cloth.The changing of the definition of "proverb" is also noted in
In other languages and cultures, the definition of proverb also differs
from English. In the Chumburung language of Ghana, "aase are literal
proverb and akpare are metaphoric ones.[11] Among the Bini of Nigeria,
there are three words that are used to translate "proverb": ere, ivbe, and
itan. The first relates to historical events, the second relates to current
events, and the third was linguistic ornamentation in formal discourse.[12]
Among the Balochi of Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is a word batal for
ordinary proverbs and bassttuks for "proverbs with background stories".[13]
All of this makes it difficult to come up with a definition of "proverb" that is
universally applicable, which brings us back to Taylor's observation, "An
incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is







The study of proverbs is called paremiology

which has a variety of uses in the study of
such topics as philosophy, linguistics, and
folklore. There are several types and styles of
proverbs which are analyzed within
Paremiology as is the use and misuse of
familiar expressions which are not strictly
'proverbial' in the dictionary definition of being
fixed sentences.

Proverbs in various languages are found with a wide
variety of grammatical structures. In English, for
example, we find the following structures (in addition to
Imperative, negative - Don't beat a dead horse.
Imperative, positive - Look before you leap.
Parallel phrases - Garbage in, garbage out.
Rhetorical question - Is the Pope Catholic?
Declarative sentence - Birds of a feather flock together.
However, people will often quote only a fraction of a
proverb to invoke an entire proverb, e.g. "All is fair"
instead of "All is fair in love and war", and "A rolling
stone" for "A rolling stone gathers no moss."
The grammar of proverbs is not always the typical

Proverbs are used in conversation by adults more than

children, partially because adults have learned more proverbs
than children. Also, using proverbs well is a skill that is
developed over years. Additionally, children have not mastered
the patterns of metaphorical expression that are invoked in
proverb use. Proverbs, because they are indirect, allow a
speaker to disagree or give advice in a way that may be less
offensive. Studying actual proverb use in conversation,
however, is difficult since the researcher must wait for
proverbs to happen.[16] An Ethiopian researcher, Tadesse Jaleta
Jirata, made headway in such research by attending and taking
notes at events where he knew proverbs were expected to be
part of the conversations.

Use in

own culture. Even within English-speaking

cultures, there is difference of opinion on
how to interpret the proverb
A rolling stone gathers no moss. Some see it
as condemning a person that keeps moving,
seeing moss as a positive thing, such as
profit; others see it the proverb as praising
people that keep moving and developing,
seeing moss as a negative thing, such as
negative habits.
In an extreme example, one researcher
working in Ghana found that for a single
Akan proverb, twelve different interpretations
were given.[37] Though this is extreme,
proverbs can often have multiple
Children will sometimes interpret proverbs in
a literal sense, not yet knowing how to
understand the conventionalized metaphor.
Interpretation of proverbs is also affected by


There are often proverbs that
contradict each other, such as "Look
before you leap" and "He who
hesitates is lost." These have been
labeled "counter proverbs" [39] or
"antonymous proverbs".[40] When
there are such counter proverbs,
each can be used in its own
appropriate situation, and neither is
intended to be a universal truth.


Proverbs come from a variety of sources. Some are, indeed, the result of
people pondering and crafting language, such as some by Confucius, Plato,
Baltasar Gracin, etc. Others are taken from such diverse sources as poetry,
[71] songs, commercials, advertisements, movies, literature, etc. [72] A number of
the well known sayings of Jesus, Shakespeare, and others have become
proverbs, though they were original at the time of their creation, and many of
these sayings were not seen as proverbs when they were first coined. Many
proverbs are also based on stories, often the end of a story. For example, the
proverb "Who will bell the cat?" is from the end of a story about the mice
planning how to be safe from the cat.
Some authors have created proverbs in their writings, such a J.R.R. Tolkien, [18]
[19] and some of these proverbs have made their way into broader society, such
as the bumper sticker pictured here. Similarly, C.S. Lewis' created proverb
about a lobster in a pot, from the Chronicles of Narnia, has also gained
currency.[73] In cases like this, deliberately created proverbs for fictional
societies have become proverbs in real societies. In a fictional story set in a
real society, the movie Forrest Gump introduced "Life is like a box of
chocolates" into broad society.