Priceless proverbs | Sunday Observer

Priceless proverbs

21 August, 2022
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

A proverb has been defined as a wise old saying and as a short and frank expression. It has also been referred to as a byword or a clever phrase of wisdom. Most proverbs are direct and to the point, and at the same time containing some helpful advice.

Some proverbs are as old as the hills while there are new additions. Proverbs usually come from fables, ancient myths, literature and religious books. The origin of some English proverbs can be traced to the Bible, William Shakespeare’s plays and Aesop’s fables.

Online resources from around the world have provided invaluable evidence for the continued currency of an appreciable number of older proverbs that were somewhat obsolescent at the end of the 20th century. Sometimes proverbs change in different localities. The proverb “First up, best dressed,” for instance, appears in Australia as “First in, best dressed.”

The Internet triumphantly demonstrated the continued affection for proverbs in the English-speaking world. Although proverbs may be trotted out as clichés by the linguistically lazy, they may equally well be used in a way that shows the user’s sophisticated awareness of their potential to provoke thought, provide amendments, or simply to add a dash of colour to the written or spoken word.

As proverbs are usually not taught in the classroom, you have to pick them by reading books. Some students are clueless when it comes to proverbs as they have not been exposed to them by their teachers. Therefore, those who wish to use the language effectively should pay greater attention to learn proverbs and their meanings.

The “Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” edited by Jennifer Speake is an ideal companion to help you with proverbs. The book contains more than 1,000 proverbs and their meanings. Proverbs help you to put across punchy new expressions to get your point across. They say the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so dine heartily on entertaining proverbs.

Novel method

Judith Frost Stark who taught first-graders for more than two decades in the United States tried out many novel methods to teach English effectively. One was to pass out the first part of well-known proverbs asking the students to complete each of them. One day she gave the first part of proverbs and asked the students to complete them. She said, “A miss is as good as a …” expecting the students to say, “mile.” However, a student gave the answer as “Mr.”

Then she gave the first part of another proverb. “No news is …” Although the correct answer was “good news,” a student got up and said, “No news is impossible.” Without getting discouraged, she gave the first part of another proverb. “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and …” To her astonishment, a student answered, “Weep and you have to blow your nose.”

She corrected him by saying, “Weep and you weep alone.” Then she gave the first part of a simpler proverb: “Still waters …” expecting answer “run deep.” Unfortunately, the student said, “Still waters will get you nowhere.” Finally, she gave the first part of another proverb. “If the blind leadeth the blind …” thinking that a student would give the correct answer:  “both shall fall into the ditch.” To her astonishment, a student got up and said, “If the blind leadeth the blind, get out of their way.”

Folk wisdom

Although most proverbs are based on folk wisdom, there seem to be contradictory sayings. A popular proverb says, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It means that we miss someone or something more when we are away from them or do not have them. A contradictory proverb says, “Out of sight out of mind.” It emphasizes that we cease to worry anybody or anything when we are away from them. Another proverb says, “He who hesitates is lost.” This applies to any situation where an opportunity is lost through failure to make up your mind.  The contradictory proverb says, “Look before you leap.” It advises us never to act hastily. That means you have to consider carefully what you are going to do before you do it.

The problem arises about the interpretation of contradictory proverbs. This is clearly bound up with their use and goes right to the heart of the problem. The Dutch call proverbs the daughters of experience. For instance, “A stitch in time saves nine” was the literary truth the busy housewife had learnt in looking after her family’s clothes. However, it is sound advice often given in this sense today.

Long history

There was a time when proverbs had a long and honourable history in the classroom. As early as the tenth century, proverbs were used in England as a brighter method of teaching Latin. About six decades ago, those who attended English medium schools were asked to copy proverbs in their exercise books and memorise them. As a result, students became familiar with many proverbs.

If you read a book of proverbs, you will find some of them cynical. An old proverb says, “Marriage is a lottery.” Although cynical, there is some truth in it. You cannot say beforehand what sort of partner you will get. There are also consolatory proverbs such as “Every cloud has a silver lining.” You will be happy to hear such proverbs when you are in an unhappy situation.

On the other hand, some proverbs like “Call no man happy till he is dead” are downright defeatist. Despite such anomalies, most proverbs can be judged as useful because they cover a wide range of human experience.

Fresh discovery

Proverbs cannot be brushed aside although some intellectuals are trying to do so. For a young student, any proverb would bring the charm of a fresh discovery. The charm may linger on for a lifetime. Those who claim that proverbs are mere platitudes should listen to Norman Douglas who said, “What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes? Take 50 of our current proverbial sayings – they are so trite, so threadbare, that we can hardly bring our lips to utter them. None the less, they embody the concentrated wisdom of the race, and the man who orders his life according to their teaching cannot go far wrong.”

[email protected]