Do you know your proverbs?


In days gone by, people loved wise old sayings. It seemed like a point was never made simply and directly if it could be dressed up in an illustrative metaphor or catchy phrase.

My mother and her mother could have whole conversations in proverbs. It would go something like this:

Mum: Old Arthur’s sailing close to the wind.

Gran: Yes, he’ll need to look before he leaps.

Mum: But he’d better strike while the iron’s hot.

Gran: Well, fortune rewards the brave. It’s an ill wind, after all.

Mum: Hm,but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Gran: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Though there’s many a slip!

Rough translation:

Mum: Old Arthur’s taking a few risks.

Gran: Yes, he’ll need to think carefully before he takes any action.

Mum: But he needs to take his chances while he can.

Gran: Well people who take risks tend to be lucky. And something good might come out of it, even if it’s not exactly what Arthur wants.

Mum: Hm, but we can’t expect Arthur to change his ways at his age.

Gran: Well, if he’s not willing to take a chance, he won’t get anywhere. Though there are still plenty of things that could go wrong!

The sayings act as a kind of code or shorthand: often they are a brief way to remind others of a whole discussion which has previously taken place – and it isn’t even necessary to give the proverb its ending. For instance, in the conversation above,  “It’s an ill wind” is a shortened version of “It’s an ill wind that blows no good”, reminding us that in any sequence of events which seem to be unlucky, it’s unusual for there not to be something good to come out of it. It might take a lengthy exchange of views to arrive at the conclusion contained in the proverb, whereas this simple summary is a quick and convenient way to summarise a fairly profound observation which is immediately understood by both participants in the conversation.

Similarly, “There’s many a slip” is a shortened version of “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” Like many proverbs, this presents a vivid picture to us: the cup is full, but it’s not yet safely drunk and many drinks are spilt before they get anywhere near the mouth. It’s a homely and vivid picture which effectively reinforces the point being made. Proverbs often contain a memorable comparison or metaphor from every day life and the ideas they summarise are often made even easier to remember through the use of rhyme or alliteration. (“Look before you leap” rolls off the tongue so much more easily than “Watch out before you jump!”)

But the proverbs and sayings which were such a colourful and lively component of spoken English are heard increasingly rarely these days.

So has modern English lost its colour and sparkle?

Luckily not. Language is constantly changing – mainly because people are constantly inventive and love to create new and vivid ways to communicate.New idioms come to the fore, though somehow they rarely have the resonance of the old proverbs. Perhaps it’s because these expressions are heard repeatedly from the lips of people who can’t be bothered to be very new and refreshing, often using current expressions because they want to sound up to date and “on trend” – in direct contrast, in fact,  to proverb-users who use proverbs precisely because they are old and their wisdom is consequently all the more profound.

The most frequently heard modern metaphors are often from the world of business where words seem to be more ubiquitous than either meaning or meaningful action.

Here are some of the most annoying and overused modern idioms:

  • level playing field
  • move the goalposts
  • think outside the box
  • on my radar
  • sing from the same hymnsheet
  • hit the ground running
  • ringfence
  • drill down
  • ball park figure
  • take a raincheck
  • close of play
  • benchmark

Would we care if we never heard any of these expressions again? Personally, I wouldn’t shed a tear. But I’d be sad if we lost these proverbs (and plenty of others too):

  1. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
  2. While the cat’s away, the mice will play.
  3. Every cloud has a silver lining.
  4. Too many cooks spoil the broth.
  5. A bird in the habd is worth two in the bush.
  6. A stitch in time saves nine.
  7. Fine words butter no parsnips.
  8. Empty vessels make most noise.
  9. Let sleeping dogs lie.
  10. Don’t cross your bridges before you com eto them.
  11. Cut your coat according to your cloth.
  12. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Do you know what all these mean? Find out HERE

Do you like modern idioms? Which ones please or annoy you most?

Do you enjoy proverbs? And which are your favourites? Thanks for adding your ideas below.

2 thoughts on “Do you know your proverbs?

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