On Proverbs

Proverbs are not aphorisms. Or maybe I should call them fossilized aphorisms, since the only one of Geary’s Five Laws of the Aphorism that proverbs do not obey is: It Must Be Personal. Proverbs were personal when they were first coined, but that was so long ago that the identity of the author has long since worn away through constant use. Proverbs can petrify into cliche over time, but the best of them still glimmer with a shine that comes from the continual polishing they receive rolling off so many tongues. Since proverbs are not aphorisms they fall outside the scope of my present research and writing, but I still encounter them everywhere. Among the many great pleasures of working on my encyclopedia of aphorists is all the old anthologies of proverbs I dig up.

The Book of Merry Riddles is a delightful late medieval anthology. Published in 1660, it was written as an entertainment, something to do with friends and family around the fireplace on a long winter’s night. The book consists of a series of slightly goofy riddles, the answer to each of which is some proverb. Then there is The New England Primer, a mix of catechism and textbook that was compiled by the early English settlers in America. It contains an amazing illustrated alphabet in which each letter is used to launch a rhymed proverbial couplet. The New England Primer also contains this touching dedication:

I leave you here a little booke
For you to looke upon,
That you may see your father’s face
When I am dead and gon.

My favorite proverb collection is George Herbert’s Jacula Prudentum(Outlandish Proverbs). Herbert was one of the great English metaphysical poets as well as an accomplished proverb connoisseur. His anthology is a refreshing read because he juxtaposes serious, spiritual sayings with funny, cynical ones. One that has been stuck in my head since I first read it weeks ago is:

When you finish the house, leave it.

It’s also fascinating to read proverbs from other nations and cultures, since a country’s character can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the sayings it chooses to keep in circulation. Here is a selection of proverbs from Arabic and Chinese:

Arabic Proverbs

I shall not kiss a hand that deserves to be cut off.

A peacemaker receives two-thirds of the blows.

What you write is the truest thing that can be said of you.

A book is a garden carried in the pocket.

He who receives the strokes is not like he who counts them.

The day on which a journey is begun half the journey is done.

You are not learned except that you can carry it about you, and produce it at will.

Chinese Proverbs

Deviate an inch, lose a thousand miles.

Better go than send.

Falling hurts least those who fly low.

Better to do a kindness near at home than to go far to burn incense.

Think twice—and say nothing.

It is a little thing to starve to death; it is a serious matter to lose one’s virtue.