A Golden Age of Proverbs

Article excerpt

What comes to mind when you hear the word proverb? Probably a bit of hoary old advice like "Waste not, want not," or "A stitch in time saves nine." The definition of a proverb is a well-known saying, succinctly stating some nugget of truth. But it seems almost as definitional that proverbial sayings are as old as the hills, passed down from one generation to the next through wise mothers and inspirational embroidered pillows. When Ben Franklin compiled proverbs for "Poor Richard's Almanac" more than two and a half centuries ago, he declared that they "contain the wisdom of many ages and nations."

The idea of a collection of "modern proverbs" sounds, at first blush, like a contradiction in terms. But we may in fact be living in a proverbial golden age. The editors of "The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs," published this month by Yale University Press, make a strong case that new proverbs are being invented, circulated and tweaked all the time. (Full disclosure: Along with several other participants in the American Dialect Society mailing list, I contributed some informal detective work to the project.)

We owe many of our current proverbs to pop cultural sources, such as songs, movies, TV shows, and commercials. Sometimes these sources bring a preexisting saying to wider popularity, while other times they launch brand-new oral traditions. Think of "If you build it, they will come" (from the movie "Field of Dreams," based on a W.P. Kinsella story) or "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" (from the song "Me and Bobby McGee," written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster).

Most proverbs have no known originator. Even in those cases, though, the editors have tracked down the earliest known usage using the new tool of online databases. Hunting for proverbs--or, indeed, for other kinds of words and phrases--has become an enjoyable sport now that so many books, newspapers, and magazines have been scanned and digitized for easy searching. …


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