Words Remembered

Proverbial language has been defined by linguist Neal Norrick as “self-contained, pithy, traditional expressions with didactic content and fixed poetic forms.” Less scientifically but more poetically, English statesman Lord John Russell is credited with defining proverbs as “the wisdom of many and the wit of one.” (ABC Dictionary of Chinese Proverbs, John S. Rohsenow, 2002)


Click on the examples above. Saws by Mark Brown. Quilts by Susan Boss

This language form is found in all cultures and persists through time. They are primarily a feature of oral language – easy to remember and rhythmic in their patterns. Proverbs bring color and humor to everyday speech. They create word pictures - unusually vivid mental images that stick in our collective memory. 

Proverbial language persists because language is overwhelmingly oral. No matter how many words you read or sentences you write, that number pales in comparison to the sheer volume of words heard and words spoken. Proverbs are poetic in that they almost sing and often balance themselves with rhythm if not also rhyme. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning” and “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” are two examples of this kind of balance.

All languages use rhythm and rhyme to aid recall. “L’homme propose et le Dieu dispose”, in French, (“Man proposes, God disposes”). “A malas hadas, malas bragas”, in Spanish, (“Ill fortune is shabbily attired”). And in Latin, “Praemonitus, praemunitus”, (“Being forewarned, one is forearmed”). (Proverb Lore, Frederick E. Hulme, 1902)       

Advertising can mirror the pneumonic and rhythm found in proverbial language. “Double your pleasure, double your fun, chew Double-mint, Double-mint, Double- mint gum.” Public service announcements use rhyme to remind. “Click it or ticket” helped increase seat belt use. More recently “Mask it or Casket” appeared on the internet as a Facebook post encouraging mask-wearing to prevent viral spread. Who can forget Donald Trump’s recent response to reports of civil unrest during the Black Lives Matter protests- “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a dreadful reuse of rhetoric used by segregationist Governor George Wallace in the 1968 presidential campaign?

Proverbs are common to all oral languages and permeate all cultures, eastern as well as western. There are obvious similarities despite differences in language and geography. This cross-cultural phenomenon can be attributed to the nature of proverbs. Cervantes describes them as “Short sentences drawn from long experience.” Proverbs unite us as participants in the human experience. They mirror everyday occurrences that human beings share all over the world: birth, death, marriage, family life, work, food and drink, war and peace. Proverbs define all of the joys and all of the pain of being human in a way that is poetic, direct, and memorable.