Meet the 'Proverbial' Scholar

Article excerpt

Paremiology - the study of proverbs, from the Greek "paroimia." I stumble across this curious word in my background research, but I haven't a clue what it really means until I meet Wolfgang Mieder in the office he shares with his proverb paraphernalia at the University of Vermont.

This animated gentleman has built up a worldwide reputation during his 30-plus years of reveling in the common phrases people use to persuade, humor, or moralize.

But the scope of Professor Mieder's devotion isn't fully apparent until he hands over a volume of his international bibliography of proverbs. (He has annotated entries for more than 7,000 publications, and by the end of May that number will have climbed to include all 10,000 publications in his archive.) A chance opening to the "M" section reveals page after page full of references to books and articles authored by "Mieder, Wolfgang."

"It's kind of sick, yah?" he says, his German accent persisting after four decades in the United States. He often jokes his passion keeps him out of trouble. "Just imagine what I'd be doing if I weren't doing this!" He lets out a quick belly laugh before getting back to business.

In the index, he notes, you can look up "anything you want - from mathematics to sex to love to animals to meteorology.... Proverbs are ubiquitous and they deal with every aspect of life. That's what has fascinated me."

What, exactly, is a proverb? "A concise statement of an apparent truth, which has had, has, or will have currency," he says, adding that it's generally 10 words or less. "You need ready-made formulaic expressions that you can pull out of your drawer, so to speak."

Proverbs are not universal truths. Indeed, they often contradict each another: Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

We all make alterations when we know a proverb but it doesn't quite fit. Mieder admits some pride at having coined a term for this that has caught on in international scholarship: Antiproverb - "an intentional parody or play with an existing proverb." Think of this bumper-sticker slogan: A woman's place is in the House and Senate.

"Shakespeare was the greatest modifier of existing proverbs [in English]," he suggests, and that's one reason his works often perplex students.

Politics is one topic he's come back to again and again. Professor Mieder and a colleague searched 40,000 pages of Winston Churchill's writings and speeches to find proverbs beyond the well- known "Strike while the iron's hot." He once studied the inaugural speeches of every US president.

When researching the proverbs of Frederick Douglass for a book, he became enamored of the abolitionist statesman. "He pushed me over to become an American citizen," says Mieder, who switched allegiances just four years ago. "Look at that handsome man," he says, tapping the picture on the finished book's cover.

Poetry, art, law. You name the subject and Mieder can give you a proverb as if he's pulling a quarter out of your ear.

Most of us aren't proverbial magicians. We can think of proverbs only when the context is right. Average people know about 300 proverbs in their native tongue, Mieder says. It's called the "paremiological minimum."

Mieder is so prolific partly because he challenges himself along with his students (he has taught various subjects in the Department of German and Russian here since 1971). He often writes a paper at the same time his students have one due.

Recently he dared his advanced German class to produce a book with him, in German. "Every paper needs to be publishable," he told them, "No child left behind!" One chose to look at proverbs in James Bond Movies, others opted for the Bible, Valentine's Day cards, and Johnny Cash lyrics. As Mieder shows me the book, he is so exuberant that his petite frame seems taller, as if he's standing on tiptoe. …