Judicial Dictionary

What is Proverb?

Synesius, a Christian writer of the early part of the fifth century, affirms, in quoting from a work of Aristotle that is now lost, that “A proverb is a remnant of the ancient philosophy preserved amid many destructions on account of its brevity and fitness for use,” and in like strain Agricola declares proverbs to be “short sentences into which, as in rules, the ancients have compressed life.” Cervantes puts this yet more pithily in his definition, “Short sentences drawn from long experience.” Howell, too, is happy in his declaration, “Sayings which combine sense, shortness, and salt.” Russell declares a proverb to be “the wisdom of many and the wit of one”—the one being the man who puts into happy form a truth that many had already felt, and thereby crystallised it for the use of all future time. Bacon, less happily, declares proverbs to be “the genius, wit, and spirit of a nation”; but this definition manifestly covers a far wider area than can be justly claimed for them. We need scarcely here point out that the word spirit does not mean the courage and resolution that summon a nation to the defence of its rights. It is but the Anglicised form of the French esprit, a word that has no entirely satisfactory English equivalent.

Chambers hath it that “proverbs are pithy, practical, popular sayings, expressive of certain more or less general convictions,” and this is a definition that really seems to cover very satisfactorily the whole ground. That of Annandale is like unto it, “A proverb is a short and pithy sentence forming a popular saying, and expressing some result of the experience of life in a keen, quaint, and lively fashion.” Popularity is an essential feature, an absolute necessity. A saying of some wise man may strike us at once as one of the happiest of utterances, but if from any cause it does not find acceptance and adoption into the common speech, the absence of this popular recognition of its work debars it. It may richly deserve a place amongst the proverbs, being as pithy, as wise as any of them, and possess every essential of a proverb save the one. This one essential of general acceptance being [7]wanting, we have left to us a golden sentence, a striking aphorism, a soul-stirring utterance. This is a point that some of the compilers of lists of proverbs have overlooked, and they have been tempted to insert in their pages brilliant wisdom-chips from the writings of divers clever men, or to coin them for themselves.

Worcester, in his dictionary, defines a proverb as “a common or pithy expression which embodies some moral precept or admitted truth,” but we find in practice that some few of these popular sayings are not altogether moral in their teaching. Hazlitt affirms that this popular diction is “an expression or combination of words conveying a truth to the mind by a figure, periphrasis, antithesis, or hyperbole.” Here, again, the soundness of the teaching is taken for granted.

Cooper, in his Thesaurus, A.D. 1584, translates proverbium as “an old sayed sawe,” and this really, in spite of its great brevity, very nearly touches the root of the matter. Being “old,” the popular utterance has the stamp and dignity of antiquity: it is no newfangled thing that may or may not find a lasting resting-place in the minds and consciences of men; while, being “sayed,” it is not merely a golden maxim buried deeply in the pages of some venerable tome, it has passed into the daily life and struggle for existence, and become incorporated in the popular speech. It has borne the test of time; generation after generation of the sons of men have recognised its value and accepted it.

In the “Encyclopædia Metropolitana” a proverb is defined as “a common saying, sentiment, or sentence in which all agree”; but while so common a saying, a sentence that all can agree upon, as “twice two make four,” comes entirely within this definition, it is in no sense a proverb. Slavery we all feel to be an evil, and we deplore its existence, but while the sentiment does credit to our [8]hearts, and unanimous as we may all be on the point, it is in no degree proverbial. The definition, moreover, requires from us a unanimity of acceptance, but this is by no means always forthcoming, as regards the moral teaching, for example, of some of our ancient adages. If we take, for instance, so well recognised a proverb as “Honesty is the best policy,” some persons will see in it a mine of shrewd wisdom, while others will decide that the man who is honest because he thinks that it will pay best is at heart a rogue. Our acceptance or rejection of its teaching does not alter the fact that for good or ill the utterance ranks as a proverb.

Thomas Fuller MD [ a British] defines a proverb as “much matter decocted into a few words,” and a very good definition it is. He declares that “six essentials are necessary for the compleating of a perfect Proverb. Namely that it be—

1. Short
2. Playne
3. Common
4. Figurative
5. Antient
6. True
Otherwise it is
not a proverb at
all but a
1. Oration
2. Riddle
3. Secret
4. Sentence
5. Upstart
6. Libel.”

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