This book is a humble offshoot from the great parent stock of the Oxford English Dictionary. Its purpose is to trace, so far as may be possible, the history of English proverbs and proverbial phrases in English use. A very few sayings which have won proverbial rank, such as "Procrastination is the thief of time" and "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," are of definitely literary origin. These can be accurately dated. But the great mass, in most cases, cannot be dated with any precision. Many are translated from or based upon Greek or Latin originals; many have been borrowed, undergoing changes in the process, from those of other countries.
In a few score cases, classical originals and parallels, carefully referenced, have been inserted, in square brackets, before the other references; but no attempt has been made to do this exhaustively.
It is obvious that a proverb or proverbial phrase, a crystallised summary of popular wisdom or fancy, is likely, or, indeed certain, to have been long current in popular speech before it could make any appearance in literature, or even in collections of such lore. Consequently, the historical method of treatment can only give an approximation to accuracy. But I venture to think that the method adopted in this book is sound; and that the results obtained are worth the eight or nine years' labour that its preparation has involved.
Like the great Oxford work, if one may compare small things with great, this book is based upon the independent collection of material. During the leisure of about seven years I made my collections direct from original sources, as detailed in later paragraphs. Until these collections were as complete as I could make them, I refrained from consulting the Oxford Dictionary. When, as the actual writing of my Dictionary was in progress, I referred to that monumental work, I found that in a few cases examples which I had collected had already been used therein. These I have not marked, as they were the fruits of my own labour, but a small number of other references which I have taken direct from the Oxford Dictionary, are carefully marked (O.).
The principal early collections of proverbs and proverbial phrases are Taverner's Prouerbes or Adagies out of Erasmus, 1539; Heywood's Proverbs, 1546, and Epigrams, 1562; Florio's First Fruites, 1578, and Second Frutes, 1591; a number in Camden's Remains, 1605; Draxe's Bibliotheca Scholastica Instructissima, 1633; Clarke's Parœmiologia Anglo-Latina, 1639; George Herbert's Jacula Prudentum, 1640, and second edition, 1651; Howell's Proverbs, 1659; Ray's Proverbs, 1670, second edition 1678, third 1737, fourth 1768 and fifth 1813; Walker's Parœmiologia, 1672; and Fuller's Gnomologia, 1732.
The whole of Ray's collections, except a few offensively dirty or indecent sayings, and a considerable part of the examples in the other books, are included in the present Dictionary; but I have excluded a very large number of sententious and moral sentences found in such works as Fuller's Gnomologia, which certainly can never have been proverbial, and also many sayings which are purely foreign.