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Curiosities in Proverbs

INTRODUCTION

A PROVERB, according to Webster, is “An old and common saying, a phrase or expression often repeated.” Old it must be and common, for a verbal statement, no matter how wise or witty it may be, rarely becomes a proverb until it is certified by the voice of the people.

Three hundred and fifty years ago John Heywood said that every proverb had the three essential characteristics of brevity, sensibility, and saltness; but one from Scotland contains thirty-nine words, one from Germany fiftyseven, one from India sixty-two, one from Hindustan sixty-three, and one from China ninety-six. The Arabs are very fond of grouping objects in their sayings and not infrequently use from twenty to forty words in giving expression to their thoughts.

As for sensibility, what reason is there in the Italian phrase, “He has done like the Perugian who, when his head was broken, ran home for a helmet," or the Scotch sentence, "Wipe wi' the water and wash wi' the towel," or the Hindustani proverbial question, “If your wife becomes a widow who will cook for you?" or the Greek adage, “Shave an egg and take its hair?”

If proverbs are not necessarily short nor sensible they may possess the characteristic quality of saltness, at least in the sense of the old Arabian saying, "A proverb is to speech what salt is to food.”

Lord Chesterfield, who was fastidious about dress and deportment, declared that a man of fashion never had recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms; yet many wise and useful people have, like Solomon, “pondered and sought out and set in order" many of them.

ANTIQUITY OF PROVERBS

Some of the proverbial phrases in common use today are very old, dating back into remote antiquity-to the time of Kalidasa, the Hindu dramatist; Æsop, the wise fabulist; the seven sages of Greece; Homer, the epic poet, and Aristotle, the philosopher. Six hundred years ago men admonished each other that “One should not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Two thousand years ago they repeated the saying, "A fool shineth no longer than he holds his tongue," and five thousand years ago they declared that “He that is wrong fights against himself.” Long before the coming of Christ the people of the Orient were repeating our familiar adages, “One sheep follows another," A good life is better than high birth,” and “The road has ears, so have walls," which last saying gave rise to our familiar maxim—“Walls have ears." During the time of Moses people compared their mighty hunters to Nimrod and their men of character and prowess to their heroes.

Men of old did not call the words of their sages proverbs but referred to them as “sayings," “ "parables," "the words of the wise" and "the sayings of the ancients," yet in all essential particulars they were the same.

The old Romans were as fond of declaring that “He who chases two hares catches neither," and the Greeks were as sure that “One swallow does not make a summer,” as we are today. Cæsar, we are told, exclaimed “The die is cast!" as he urged his charger through the Rubicon.

Shakespeare's plays abound in proverbial quotations; Scott familiarized himself with the phrases in constant use by his countrymen and gave them expression in his novels; the preachers of the Reformation used the aphorisms of the people with telling effect in their warnings and exhortations; John Knox, Bishop Latimer, Jeremy Taylor, Matthew Henry, and a host of others clinched their arguments and pointed their lessons with well chosen proverbs,

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROVERBS

They are, as has been declared, “The safest index of the inner life of the people.” Historians may record a nation's political growth and tell of the conflicts that gave strength and permanency to its institutions, but they cannot make known perfectly the thoughts of the people, nor indicate the intellectual status, moral standards, and social ideals of a community, save as they are able to conduct their readers in spirit into the very presence of those of whom they write and cause them to hear the voices of the street, the home, and the shop. It may be that a certain degree of crudity will be found in the language that is heard, but that is because the men who speak are crude; the “voice of the multitude" is never the voice of the schools. From the study of the proverbs current in Jerusalem when Solomon reigned as King, Dr. Thomson was able to give an accurate and interesting description of the social life of the people in that city.

But proverbs are more than an index of men's lives; they are also the record of their vocabulary, so that it is unsafe to leave them out of consideration in studying the language of any community. This fact is indicated by the different forms that adages take when used by people in widely separated districts,

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