The meanings of words change over time. Awful began as a shortening for ‘full of awe’, in other words, inspiring wonder or fear. It has mutated to now be a tired word for something unpleasant. Although changing, on occasions a word will retain something of its original meaning. Elope was first used to described a woman running away from her husband ‘in the company of her paramour’. Today it retains the sense of running away but is used to describe a besotted couple running away from home to be married elsewhere possibly because of family objections. Sometimes the meaning of a word can move so far that the origin is not immediately obvious. Garble, originally used as a noun or a verb, referred to refuse in spices and the removal of it. Today it is used to describe the reproduction of a message or sound in a confused and distorted way.
Whatever their meanings, it is when words are woven into prose that they have their greatest effect whether it is in informal conversation, spare and incisive reports, or elegant and moving prose. One element of language which carries with it both history and culture is the proverb. More than just a succinct way of expressing a greater truth, proverbs from various cultures can also highlight the common experience of life. For example the Lebanese proverb, The person who knew you when you were young will seldom respect you as an adult, carries essentially the same meaning as the English adage, Familiarity breeds contempt or the Biblical, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.(Mark 6:4, KJV). A truth that can be attested to by anyone who has returned to the town where he or she grew up only to to be reminded of things done decades earlier as if that person at forty or even sixty was still the same person they were at ten or twelve.
Some proverbs may be unique to a culture such as the Russian, A priest’s beard is always soaked in butter, for which I cannot find an exact meaning but would assume it refers to the practice of tithing which ensures that the priest is always fed even in straitened times. With others, the words may not be the same but the sentiment is. The Japanese proverb, A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle, carries the same meaning as the English, United we stand, divided we fall. The Irish, Dress a goat in silk and he still remains a goat, is akin to the English, You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And the Irish proverb, The well-fed does not understand the lean at its essence has the same message as the Yiddish proverb, If you sit in a hot bath, you think the whole town is warm. Both highlight the fact that the rich often have no understanding of the struggles of the poor.
The delightful 1559 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called Dutch Proverbs depicts around 100 Dutch contemporary proverbs. It is also believed to illustrate Bruegel’s view of the absurdity and foolishness of the world. Some of these proverbs are in modern use in English such as The die is cast, To put a spoke in someone’s wheel and To bang one’s head against a brick wall. Some are near to modern sayings such as If the blind lead the blind both will fall in the ditch, but others I have never heard before such as To have toothache behind the ears and To be a hen feeler. And, of course, as this is the 16th century, some are scatological and modern sounding, He who eats fire, craps sparks. The full list can be found here.
If you have some time
to waste to spend on researching proverbs, here is a short list of interesting sites
Proverbs by topic
Proverbs from around the world
More proverbs from around the world
And finally from a list of proverbs about proverbs – the English say that There is no proverb which is not true, and Arabic speakers agree saying, There is something wise in every proverb, while the Scottish offer a word of caution with Wise men mak’ proverbs and fools repeat them.
Image: The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons