I. What is a Proverb?
A proverb is a short saying or piece of folk wisdom that emerges from the general culture rather than being written by a single, individual author. Proverbs often use metaphors or creative imagery to express a broader truth. “Adage” is another word for “proverb.”
II. Examples of Proverb
If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both. (Russian Proverb)
This is a popular adage/proverb that exists in several cultures. It is an expression of the general advice that one should choose a single goal and focus on it, rather than trying to do too much and thus failing to accomplish anything. Notice how the “rabbit” metaphor gives the adage more texture and color – it’s more memorable than just saying “always pick one goal.”
The world is a library – knowledge is rooted in all things. (Lakota Proverb)
This proverb comes from the Lakota, or Sioux, cultures of the American plains. It expresses the Lakota’s belief that human beings should approach the world with a combination of intense curiosity and deep reverence, just the attitude that students have toward a venerable university library.
III. The Importance of Proverbs
Every culture on earth has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of proverbs, and they all borrow from one another. We can tell a lot about a culture by what wisdom it encodes in proverbs, and what imagery or metaphors it employs to express that wisdom.
Due to their concision and frequent use of metaphors, proverbs are very easy to remember, and they often stick with us long after we first hear them. This, in combination with their general applicability, gives proverbs remarkable staying power, which explains why they float around in the culture for centuries or millennia, and why they can so easily translate from one culture into another.
What they gain in applicability and staying power, however, proverbs generally lose in specificity. By definition, a proverb is a short, general statement, meaning there’s no room for explanations or supporting arguments. The proverb must simply be accepted on its intuitive merits and the power of cultural authority.
IV. Examples of Proverb in Literature
R.R. Tolkien was extremely adept at inventing proverbs for his made-up cultures in the Lord of the Rings series. The wizard Gandalf, for example, repeats a proverb that “not all those who wander are lost” – a phrase that has become extremely popular among Lord of the Rings fans.
Other authors, especially poets, will turn proverbs on their heads or satirize them. For example, Paul Muldoon’s Symposium starts with the line “You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it hold its nose to the grindstone,” a combination of two common English-language proverbs. The whole poem uses this sort of mixed metaphor to poke fun at popular proverbs (which Muldoon seems to regard as truisms).
V. Examples of Proverb in Pop Culture
Songs are frequently based around short proverbs. In these cases, the proverb is often repeated in the chorus while the song makes a statement about its meaning. Examples include Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “A Man’s Home is His Castle” by Faith Hill.
In the movie Forrest Gump, the main character frequently speaks in proverbs, and is even shown inventing a few. For example:
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
This proverb means that life is full of surprises and it is impossible to predict the future.
The Nigerian rapper 9ice frequently combines English and Yoruba in his lyrics, often by placing Yoruba proverbs in the context of English lyrics. For example, one of his famous lines is:
They forget say ogbon ju agbaralo [wisdom is greater than power].
This multilingual use of proverbs is a way of reaching a global English-language audience without losing touch with 9ice’s ancestral Yoruba roots.
An aphorism is just like a proverb, but has a single author that we can trace. For example, the common saying “all’s well that ends well” is often regarded as a general proverb, but in fact it was originally penned by Shakespeare as the title of his 1605 play.
A truism is an aphorism or proverb that’s so vague, trite, or general that it’s almost meaningless. The great proverbs rarely get stale no matter how many times they’re repeated, but if this happens then even an ancient proverb can start to seem like a truism. For example, some people might feel that the proverb “no time like the present” is a truism, because it’s somewhat trite and does not add much new information to a given situation.
Many proverbs employ metaphor (having one thing stand in for something else) to get their point across. One example is the adage “if the shoe fits, wear it.” In this case, shoe is a metaphor for opportunity and possibility more generally. Of course, there are some proverbs that are simple statements of truth without any metaphors – for example, “two wrongs don’t make a right” is a proverb without a metaphor. A proverb without a metaphor is generally referred to as a “maxim.”
A maxim is a concise statement of a general truth – especially a moral or spiritual truth. It may be either a proverb or an aphorism, depending on whether or not it has a single author. Maxims usually do not employ metaphors, but rather state their point explicitly, e.g. “two wrongs don’t make a right.”