Save the Proverbs

The proverbs of a culture reflect much of its attitudes by Julie Lovell - 2001

This essay shall explore the concept that the proverbs of a culture reflect much of its attitudes. Referring to some thirty English language proverbs commonly used in Australia today - selected from a seemingly inexhaustible supply - this dissertation discusses how they may be seen to reflect Australian cultural values. Many of the proverbs cited date back to Ancient Greece and biblical times, yet still enjoy currency today. Firstly, the definition of a proverb shall be explored, before entering a discussion of the cogent examples and how they may reflect Australian culture. In conclusion, it shall be argued that while proverbs may provide an insight into some aspects of a culture, similar values exist across many cultures and in other times.

Firstly, it is imperative to define what constitutes a proverb. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2001, on-line) a proverb is “a short pithy saying in common and recognised use; a concise sentence, often metaphorical or alliterative in form, which is held to express some truth ascertained by experience or observation and familiar to all”. The definition expands to quote Howell (1659): “Proverbs may not improperly be called the Philosophy of the Common Peeple, or, according to Aristotle, the truest Reliques of old Philosophy”; and South’s (1823) observation: “What is a proverb, but the experience and observation of several ages, gathered and summed up into one expression?” (Oxford, 2001). MacDougall claims the attraction of proverbs is that they provide a mental picture that is readily comprehensible. A characteristic of proverbs in any language, is that of linguistic synergy: “the meaning provided by the saying ‘in toto’ is greater than that provided by the words individually MacDougall. He argues that the learning of proverbs can be a key element in the language acquisition process - “proverbs can provide a snapshot of other cultures that allows for a more thorough understanding of both language and culture”, i.e. proverbs can be the eyes that provide a window to a culture’s soul. MacDougall asserts that the wisdom inherent in proverbs has demonstrated its value over an extended period of time. “The valuable insights gleaned from their study and application will help students to better understand their own language and culture MacDougall.

Widely recognised as the world’s leading paremiologist, or scholar of proverbs, German-born US academic Wolfgang Mieder defines a proverb as: "a concise statement of an apparent truth which has currency among the people” (Simson 1991 on-line). According to Mieder, proverbs are not high philosophy, quoting an old English proverb: "they are the children of experience" (People Weekly, 1989 on-line). He provides examples demonstrating how collective that experience is; for instance, variations on "Love is blind" can also be found in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Japanese and the original Latin, "Amor caecus". Yusuf (1998, on-line) supports this claim that many similar proverbs exist across cultures. In her alarming analysis of rape-related proverbs in Anglo-American and Yoruba cultures, Yusuf cites a body of research conducted between 1931-1993, which concludes that “proverbs from different cultures may express similar attitudes towards a particular phenomenon”. However to Yusuf, proverbs are not necessarily benign. She argues that a proverb is “a short, repeated, witty statement or set of statements of wisdom, truth and experience which is used to further a social end”. About the truth of proverbs, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1973, p.821) notes that: ‘Neat symmetries and witty convergences of sound and meaning, tight formulations of logical relations, highly patterned repetitions, structural balance, and familiar metaphors encapsulate general principles and contribute to the feeling that anything that sounds so right must be true.’

Yusuf (1998) cites the observation of Page & Washington (1987) that “once internalised, proverbs, like values, become unconscious as well as conscious standards for action and attitudes toward self and others”. According to Yusuf, proverbs “protect the self against feelings of inadequacy and frustration, allowing us to rationalise beliefs, attitudes and actions that would otherwise be personally and socially unacceptable” (1998). Many paremiologists draw attention to this double-edged nature of proverbs. Mieder, in his 1994 book Proverbs Are Never out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age, reveals how the Nazis employed the proverbial form in adopting new slogans to advance their “final solution” with frightening success (Mayer, 1994, on-line).

Research reveals the world’s earliest proverbs were recorded in Ancient Sumer where writing originated (Leick, 1999, on-line). These ancient maxims inscribed on clay tablets, “like proverbs everywhere … have no inherent truth value but depend on context to emphasise one meaning or another”. Leick claims the accumulative effect of proverbs in Ancient Sumerian society “as a form of non-institutional social control is very clear”. She concludes that the main focus is on the individual householder on whose good judgement the happiness and survival of the whole family, and ultimately society, depend. “The desirable virtues are level-headedness, thrift and foresight; vices such as lying, slander, sexual incontinence and profligacy are made responsible for social isolation and economic hardship” (Leick, 1999). It appears such human qualities and frailties are enduring for they remain the focus of many proverbs commonly applied in Australia today.

Let us consider, then, the desirable Sumerian virtues of level-headedness, thrift and foresight that are still extolled in popular proverbs. It appears that Aesop, the famed Ancient Greek teller of fables, is the source of numerous such maxims dating from 620-560 BC. Among Aesop’s many proverbs that appeal to level-headedness and moderation are “Slow and steady wins the race” and “Little by little does the trick”. These allude to the concept that endurance and pacing oneself is preferable to unsustainable bursts of energy - particularly apt in the context of university study. Regarding the benefits of self-control, my 92-year-old grandmother has always been partial to the simple proverb “Everything in moderation” which she uses to explain her longevity. She would also ascribe to moderation in one’s sleep routine as elucidated in the saying “Early to bed, early to rise, makes man healthy, wealthy and wise”. Widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), he actually borrowed it from an old English saying (Mayer, 1994). However, psychologists disagree with the general application of Franklin’s adopted maxim. According to Epstein (1997 on-line), the population is divided into larks or early risers, and owls, those who do their best work at night. This suggests greater perception is housed in the assertion that “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”, which in other versions is restated as “Horses for courses” or “Different strokes for different folks”. These proverbs champion tolerance and individuality.

The prized virtue of discretion is described humorously in the American adage “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, adopted from an old German proverb (Mayer, 1994, on-line) and popular in Australia. This alludes to the idea that one should hold onto what is valuable when sorting the wheat from the chaff, rather than adopting an arbitrary approach. Again, its meaning is context-dependent, as it could be applied quite widely, for example to conflict resolution, to the development of inventions or logical arguments or, more literally, when discarding material possessions.

Level-headedness is also feted in the old English proverb, “Never put off until tomorrow what can be done today” which shuns procrastination and promotes a solid work ethic (Mieder, 2000, on-line). This is reinforced by “Practice makes perfect”, although to counter this “There is no use flogging a dead horse”. Again, moderation is the key - one needs to known when to desist. Moderation is also central to the saying “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” which urges a balance between labour and recreation, arguably one of the most conveniently quoted maxims in Australia. The desirability of diligence is extolled in another popular proverb “Whatever is worth doing, is worth doing well” attributed to Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) and adapted from the Latin, Hoc age (Mieder, 2000). Paradoxically, Chesterfield argued vehemently against the use of proverbs claiming "a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms” (Mieder, 2000). However, his writings reveal he not only knew “these formulaic treasures of wisdom” well, but was clearly incapable of avoiding them. The aristocratic Chesterfield considered them to be a lower class expression, which according to Mieder (2000), was his mistake: “proverbs express traditional wisdom shared by all people of a culture” not only common folk.

With reference to the level-headed trait of stability, the interpretation of the English proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, attributed to John Heywood, 1497-1580 Wise Old Sayings, 2001 is particularly ambiguous. According to Wolkomir (1992, on-line) it is an example of how nationality can affect interpretation. The Scots, for instance, tend to read this proverb as extolling the virtues of action, as opposed to the more sedentary life. The English, however, tend to equate it with “the beautiful growth of moss on a stone in a stream, a metaphor for tradition and stability” (Wolkomir 1992). Given the influence of both English and Scottish heritage in Australia, its meaning here remains ambiguous, depending on one’s interpretation of “moss” as representing something either unwelcome or beneficial. That perennial rock group, The Rolling Stones, doubtlessly lifted their name from this maxim and over the decades have probably gathered plenty of “moss” in terms of money, fame - and gratuitous sex.

While level-headedness is often a quality associated with maturity, ageing is not always considered a virtue itself, evidenced by the proverb, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. As a mature age student, I would contest this proverb to be fundamentally flawed. Wortley (1997) concludes that collections of ancient-medieval proverbs and fables reveal quite different attitudes to ageing and old age from today. “Most are distinctly complimentary. In most instances the elderly are seen to increase, rather diminish, in certain powers other than physical strength” (Wortley, 1997). He cites fables which characterise older persons as being “astute, intelligent, crafty, loyal and, above all, capable of giving sound advice and good leadership when the situation requires it of them” (Wortley, 1997). Psychological research into the capacity of older persons to learn would advocate the “use it or lose it” principal; that if one pursues life-long education, one’s capacity for learning does not diminish.

Another virtue praised by the ancient Sumerian proverbs was that of thrift. The Scottish proverb, “A penny saved is a penny earned” while still in use today is probably invoked less frequently than in our grandparents’ day. This could be due to our culture’s increasing affluence and materialism that tends to disparage thrift. More apt might be Aesop’s celebration of both thrift and foresight in his classic proverb “Save for a rainy day”. This has relevance to insurance and superannuation, considered wise investments in Australian society. Another pertinent proverb is “A fool and his money are quickly parted” attributed to J. Bridges in 1587 Wise Old Sayings, 2001, especially salient in the light of Australia’s worsening gambling epidemic. Further, the bible cautions that “Money is the root of all evil”. While this warning ignores other potential causes, money doubtlessly features as a contributing factor in much criminal activity. Alternatively, a more popular proverb in modern Australia would be the observation that “Money makes the world go around”. While protesters decry globalisation, Australia continues to be a player in the world economy. Although the distribution of money presents inherent challenges worldwide, arguably it appears to be a case of “can’t live with it, can’t live without it”.

The virtue of foresight is extolled in the common proverb “A stitch in time saves nine” which offers a lesson in prevention, urging us to attend to small problems before they escalate into major concerns. This is reiterated less poetically in another well-known English proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Urging one to make the most of opportunities, Chaucer’s “Strike while the iron is hot”, circa 1343-1400 Wise Old Sayings, 2001, praises alertness and foresight, as does the equally bucolic maxim “Make hay while the sun shines”, attributed to John Heywood, 1497-1580 Wise Old Sayings, 2001. A similar idea recurs in “He who hesitates is lost”. However, caution is not to be thrown to the wind, as advised by the opposing maxim that suggests you “Look before you leap”.

The paradox evident in opposing proverbs might seem to undermine their wisdom. However, Simson reminds us that proverbs are "apparent truths, not universal" which allows for the contradiction of, for example “Absence makes the heart grow fonder" and "Out of sight, out of mind” (Simson, 1991, on-line). Epstein (1997, on-line) contends that we tend to switch proverbs to suit our current values and ideals. “A young man might rationalise risky action by pointing out that ‘You only live once’; later in life - if he's still around - he'll probably tell you ‘Better safe than sorry’.” (Epstein, 1997). Interestingly, research finds some cultures are more comfortable dealing with paradox than others. Contrasting Chinese and European-American ways of dealing with paradox, Peng & Nisbett (1999, on-line) found that the Chinese preferred a dialectical or compromise approach - retaining basic elements of opposing perspectives by seeking a middle way, while Westerners tended to polarise their views. According to the authors, dialectical thinking is a form of folk wisdom in China, while Western cultures (such as Australia) seem to possess very few self-contained dialectical proverbs - the paradox occurs only when contradictory proverbs are juxtaposed (Peng & Nisbett, 1999).

Reinforcing the ancient Sumerian disapproval of vices such as lying and slander that stand equally condemned in contemporary Australia, Aesop advocates that “Honesty is the best policy”. Yet, where tact may be imperative, he rejoins that “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. Centuries later, William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, poetically reiterates this idea, suggesting that “Discretion is the better part of valour”. Around that same time, George Herbert, 1593-1632, coined the visually appealing proverb “People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones” as a warning not to hurl insults at others because one makes oneself vulnerable. It also echoes the compelling biblical phrase uttered by Jesus “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

All of the above-mentioned proverbs are in common use in Australia today. However, most have been borrowed from ancient Greek and Latin, from “olde” English and European traditions or more recently, from America. The question arises: Do quintessentially Australian proverbs exist? One is familiar with the Australian myths of mateship, the bush and a “fair go” as well as the Anzac legend, yet these do not constitute proverbs per se. Renowned for our dry wit, self-deprecating humour and relaxed attitude, Australians have coined a plethora of colloquialisms such as “knock me down with a feather”, “fair dinkum”, “fair suck of the sav”, “flat out like a lizard drinking” and “she’ll be jake”. Perhaps this last phrase, indicating the “near enough is good enough” or “no worries” streak in the Australian character comes close to constituting a national proverb. This relaxed approach contrasts with the popular protestant work ethic proverbs extolling the virtue of diligence that were discussed earlier. Arguably an example of a recent Australian proverb might be “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, espoused by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to explain his government’s rigorous cost-cutting measures in the late 1970s. While this somewhat bleak insight was often quoted subsequent to its introduction, it is less commonly invoked today.

In conclusion, the vast majority of proverbs enjoying currency in Australia have their origins elsewhere. Given “the striking similarity of proverbs from dissimilar cultures in different times and different places” (Williams, 1997, on-line) this is not particularly remarkable. However, it complicates any efforts to infer how popular proverbs may reflect Australian cultural values, except that perhaps it mirrors our multiculturalism. Further, given the overwhelming plethora of proverbs from which to choose, it is casting a wide net to suggest that one could draw conclusions about Australian culture based on the exploration of a mere handful. Within its limited scope, this essay has considered proverbs relating to various virtues and vices, but has barely touched on attitudes to love, family and friends. However, the proverbs that have been discussed reveal an Australian culture that values the enduring ideals - including foresight, level-headedness and honesty - prized by the Ancient Sumerians and many cultures since. Finally, this study reveals scope for further research into the existence and meaning of uniquely Australian proverbs.


Epstein, R (1997) ‘Folk Wisdom’ Psychology Today, Nov-Dec 1997 vol. 30, no. 6, p.46, Sussex Publishers Inc. [on-line] Accessed 10 April 2001

Leick, G. (1999) ‘Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections’ Folklore, Annual 1999 p110 [on-line] Accessed 10 April 2001

Mayer, D.R. (1994) ‘Proverbs are Never out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age’ Asian Folklore Studies, October 1994, vol. 53, no. 2, p.355 [on-line] Accessed 3 April 2001

Mieder, W. (2000) ‘A Man of Fashion Never Has Recourse to Proverbs: Lord Chesterfield's Tilting at Proverbial Windmills’ Folklore, April 2000, vol. 111, issue 1, p.23 [on-line] Accessed 10 April 2001

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Peng K. & Nisbett, R.E. (1999) ‘Culture, dialectics and reasoning about contradiction’ The American Psychologist, September 1999, vol. 54, issue 9, p.741 [on-line] Accessed 9 April 2001

People Weekly (1989) Feb 20, 1989, vol. 31, no.7, p.112(2) ‘Love proverbs are universal, says an expert - and like love itself, they can bite’ [on-line] Accessed 10 April 2001

Simson, M. (1991) ‘Oxford to publish 50-year project on proverbs’ Publishers Weekly, Oct 11, 1991, vol. 238, no. 45, p.23(2) [on-line] Accessed 9 April 2001

Williams, L. (1997) ‘The Multicultural Dictionary of Proverbs’ Library Journal, May 15 1997, vol. 122, no. 9, p.70, Reed Publishing USA. [on-line] Accessed 9 April 2001 Wolkomir, R. (1992) ‘A proverb each day keeps this scholar at play’ Smithsonian, September 1992, vol. 23, no. 6, p.110 [On-line] Accessed 9 April 2001

Wortley, J. ‘Aging and the aged in Aesopic fables’ International Journal of Aging & Human Development, April 1997, vol. 44, no. 3, p.183(21), Baywood Publishing Company Inc. [on-line] Accessed 10 April 2001

Yusuf, Y.K. (1998) ‘Rape-related English and Yoruba proverbs’ Women and Language, Fall 1998 vol. 21 issue 2, p.39(4), George Mason University. [on-line] Accessed 9 April 2001

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