Scottish Proverbs

Scottish Proverbs

Scottish Proverbs

Scottish Proverbs


Arranged in an easily accessible A-Z format, this book contains a collection of Scottish proverbs, and describes the role of proverbs in Scottish culture to provide a glimpse into Scottish society.


The word ‘proverb’ traces its origins to the Latin ‘proverbium’, which meant literally a ‘set of words put forth’ – that is, ‘commonly uttered’. It is a compound formed from the prefix pro – ‘forth’, and verbum– ‘word’.

However, the definition of a proverb is no simple matter and has occupied scholars from Ancient Greece until the present day. Generally it is accepted that a proverb is a short, pithy traditional saying, which contains some widely accepted knowledge, or which offers advice or presents a moral. The celebrated Spanish writer Cervantes said that a proverb is ‘a short sentence drawn from long experience’. Lord John Russell defined the proverb as ‘the wisdom of many and the wit of one’, whilst according to Lord Bacon ‘The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in their proverbs’. This volume also contains many phrases and sayings which are not strictly proverbs as we use the term today, although we may still think of them as such. This situation arises because, prior to the eighteenth century, it was common for the term to also include metaphors, similes, and descriptive epithets. I have included these ‘rogue’ phrases or sayings, as much for the continuance of the tradition established by previous collectors, as from the difficulty of finding any easy rule by which to distinguish them. The essence of a proverb lies in it being a ‘traditional saying’, i.e. something which has commonly passed from one generation to another by word of mouth. Hence it would not seem appropriate to reject any of these ‘rogue’ sayings as their usage embraces much that is essential to the true proverb. As David Murison writes in Scots Saws

a proverb is essentially a social phenomenon … handed down by word
of mouth from one generation to the next.

In his book On the Lessons in Proverbs (1852), Richard Chevenix Trenchard argues that there is one quality of the proverb which is the most essential of all:

… popularity, acceptance and adoption on the part of the people.
Without this popularity, without these suffrages and this consent of the
many, no saying, a proverb, however fulfilling all other its conditions,
can yet be esteemed as such.

1. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (Bloomsbury 1990).

2. David Murison, Scots Saws: From the folk-wisdom of Scotland (Mercat Press 1981).

3. R. C. Trench, On the Lessons in Proverbs (3rd Revised Edition, London 1854), being the substance of lectures delivered to Young Men’s Societies at Portsmouth and elsewhere.

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