Ask no questions, hear no lies ...

The Bible has a whole chapter in the Book of Proverbs. These are in the Old Testament and were written in the 5th Century BC. That means that they were Jewish folklore from the time of Abraham and not always reflective of the later teachings of Jesus Christ. 

There are two things that we can learn from proverbs: one is that every proverb is a truism. They have been around since the days of the Romans, and even centuries before. 

So, what is a proverb? And what makes a proverb different from an aphorism, an epigram, a motto or a truism?

The Macquarie defines the proverb as “a short popular saying, embodying some familiar truth or useful thought in expressive language”. 

To the OED it is “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.” 

Well, thanks. Please explain?

There are many classical authors who have coined or repeated well- know popular sayings of their day, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. 

Erasmus, (1466-1536) expressed the feelings of many of his age/era. 

Although of Dutch birth, he spent 40 years collecting Latin and Greek proverbs, and in 1500, just as print was emerging across Europe, he published his Collectanea. His most famous work was the Adagia, published in 1536.

“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, according to Erasmus, comes from the Latin to indicate mutual support; but ever since it has come to mean devious dealings in business and in politics. 

Other writers, including Martin Luther (1484-1546) used them in various attempts to include the masses before he posted his 95 articles on the door of the Wittenburg Church.

He was, perhaps, the medieval version of today’s televangelists, protesting the religion of Rome.

The famous French collections of the Fables de la Fontaine by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) included many French proverbial sayings, some of which were drummed into me at the age of six in my French primary school. 

One of the intriguing facets of proverbs is that they are often contradictory.  If “out of sight, out of mind” were true (the subjunctive), how come we also say “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? 

It was meant to refer to love; but does this work with separation from one’s dearly beloved?

The classics scholars invented a few proverbs of their own.

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” was contradicted by “never look a gift horse in the mouth”.  The Trojans, if they had been proverbially wise, might have looked into the horse’s mouth and discovered all those soldiers hiding inside. 

The Greeks might have thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained” but the people of Troy would have been “better safe than sorry”. They weren’t.  “Once bitten, twice shy” perhaps?

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” but at the same time “you are never too old to learn”.

In today’s hyper-fast, time-poor, get-outta-my-way society it seems that the simplicity and veracity of the proverb has been lost.   “A stitch in time saves nine” was quoted by the author of Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott (1832-1888), in her somewhat cynical Proverb Stories.  Today, even the title of her best-known book is so un-PC. But has anyone actually read it?

I suppose that’s also why Snow White’s little friends are also not acceptable. “Vertically challenged” indeed!

If you are interested or intrigued by the history and derivation of proverbs, the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs was first published in 1935. There have been several more recent editions; but why did it take so long? 

“More haste, less speed” perhaps? And why has “proverb” come to replace the Greek word “epigram” or short pithy saying? They both mean the same. And so does “aphorism”. It’s all Greek to me.

If you are sceptical about the veracity or value of proverbs, just remember: “There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip”.

Finally, remember Bob Dylan. As we get older, surely we do not wish to gather moss. We can carry on “just like a Rolling Stone”.