The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs


In this book the compiler has followed the example of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has been invaluable alike as model and as source of information, and to each proverb he has appended illustrative quotations in chronological order. His effort has been, however, rather to find the earliest indication of familiar proverbs than continually to trace their use down to the most recent times.

It is not always easy to arrive at the true form of a proverb, as this may have varied considerably over the years, or it may have been changed to suit its context. Because of this, quotations have been taken wherever possible both from collections of proverbs and from literary usage.

Nor is it easy for the compiler of a collection such as the following to decide upon his system. If he elects to arrange the proverbs under their leading words he inevitably finds himself in difficulties when a proverb contains two or three leading words, as for instance in the series of proverbs about fools and wise men, when for once both parties are equally important. On the other hand, there will be many to criticize the method adopted here of arranging the proverbs in alphabetical order under the first word of each sentence. They will object that the proverbs are difficult to find, and that the same proverb cannot fail to be repeated several times. The first objection can be met by calling attention to the index at the end of the book. This is an index of the main words in each proverb, with, in addition, a few subject headings by which special classes of proverbs can be more easily found. To meet the second objection, grace may fairly be craved if, in a collection of over ten thousand proverbs, there are some repetitions. But the principle has also been recognized that, both for convenience and for scholastic purposes of collation, the variant forms of the same proverb are best grouped under one general heading. Thus under the heading 'A cat in gloves catches no mice' will also be found the alternative forms 'A gloved cat was never a good hunter' and 'A muffled (or muzzled) cat was never good mouser'; while 'To him that will, ways are not wanting', which appeared in Herbert's collection of Outlandish Proverbs in 1640, has been taken as an older, and probably foreign, form of the more usual 'Where there's a will there's a way' and has accordingly been quoted under the latter heading.

A problem of special interest in proverb lore is to distinguish between the 'medieval' proverbs and those which came to England in the time of the Renaissance and through the influence of Erasmus. For this reason Shakespeare's references to proverbs have been carefully studied. In his day, proverbs were at the height of their popularity, and in his work we find hints that certain proverbs were already known that otherwise appear only much later in collections obviously based on foreign sources.

By quoting the titles of books in a not too drastically abbreviated form the inconvenience of a long prefatory list of abbreviations has, it is hoped...

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • Oxford
Publication year:
  • 1935


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