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
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
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. …