Today I thought I would tackle some proverbs. They have infiltrated our language, and are as common as any cliche. They tend to be uplifting, but occasionally preachy because of their origin as many come from religion. What exactly is considered a proverb?
“Proverbs are short and pithy sayings that express some traditionally held truth. They are usually metaphorical and often, for the sake of memorability, alliterative. And, as so many proverbs offer advice and uplift, many of them are religious in origin.”*
Keep in mind that almost every culture has their own proverbs, and some day I will get to them. Today, however, I am going to focus on the proverbs of the English language. There are more than a few. And some were, hmmmm, appropriated from other languages and modified as well.
Words most used in English Proverbs, the two most common are ‘good’ and ‘never’.
They tend to be virtuous but negative: the idea being of be good or bad things will happen!
a drowning man will clutch at a straws: take any way out of a bad situation, no matter how unlikely the solution may be. This proverb has changed over the centuries, not the idea behind it but how the straws came to occupy our hands. In the 1300s the word ‘catch’ meant to obtain or achieve, and the proverb then was to “catch at a straw.” As our usage of ‘catch’ changed, so did the proverb. By the 1800s we were using ‘grasp,’ and now we ‘clutch.’
a cat may look at a king: an inferior is not restricted in every way of what they may do in the presence of a superior. The origin of this proverb is not known, but it is found in this stanza from 1562:
Some hear and see him whom he heareth nor seeth not
But fields have eyes and woods have ears, ye wot
And also on my maids he is ever tooting.
Can ye judge a man, (quoth I), by his looking?
What, a cat may look on a king, ye know!
My cat’s leering look, (quoth she), at first show,
Showeth me that my cat goeth a caterwauling;
And specially by his manner of drawing
To Madge, my fair maid –The Proverbs And Epigrams Of John Heywood
a miss is as a good as a mile: any miss is a good miss, whether it is near or wide of the mark. Some think this is American in origin, particularly with its late entry into the proverbial arena, appearing in print for the first time in the 1700s. But it is found all over the British Isles, especially in James Kelly’s A complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs:
An Inch of a miss is as good as a span –1721
a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: knowing one thing may lead you to believe you are more expert than you are. This proverb can be interchanged with “a little learning can be a dangerous thing.” The phrase seems to be a group effort, starting with Sir Francis Bacon in 1601. His phrase was a bit misquoted later on in 1698 by anonymous author known as “A B,” who was later misquoted in 1774 with the final incarnation:
Mr. Pope says, very truly, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”—The monthly miscellany; or Gentleman and Lady’s Complete Magazine, Vol II
a rolling stone gathers no moss: those who don’t settle in one place rarely prosper. This idea is a very old, used by Eramus in his Adageia, 1508. It then wended its way through English, starting in 1546 with John Heywood. By the 17 century a ‘rolling stone’ came to mean a wastrel, adding to the idea that a rolling stone would not prosper. In A dictionarie of the French and English tongues, the French word Rodeur was given this definition:
A vagabond, roamer, wanderer, street-walker, highway-beater; a rolling stone, one that does nought but runne here and there, trot up and downe, rogue all the country over –1611
Not a bad name for a rock band that has traveled the world for decades, although that Rolling Stone has definitely prospered!