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short statement of wisdom or advice that has passed into general use. More homely than aphorisms, proverbs generally refer to common experience and are often expressed in metaphor, alliteration, or rhyme, e.g., "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," "When the cat's away, the mice will play." Proverbs abound in the Bible, in early Greek and Roman literature, and in the gnomic verse of the Anglo-Saxons. In medieval literature proverbs serve in homilies and exempla to drive home moral lessons and, as in the works of Chaucer, to add a humorous note. To the traditional folk sayings the Renaissance writers added the more literary proverbs from the classics; the most famous collection was Adagia by Erasmus (1500). Proverbs were extremely popular among the Elizabethans, the most famous collections being those of John Heywood (1549?) and Florio (1578). Although the popularity of proverbs declined in the 18th cent., they have become a subject for research and classification in more modern times. There is a famous collection by William Hazlitt (1869). Noted 20th-century compilations include The Book of Proverbs (1965), ed. by Paul Rosenzweig, and The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (1970), ed. by W. G. Smith and F. P. Wilson.



a short, rhythmically organized, graphic, idiomatic folk expression.

Proverbs lend themselves to polysemous use based on the principle of analogy. The statement “When wood is chopped, the chips fly” is not of interest because of its direct meaning, but because it can be applied to other, analogous situations. The subject of the utterance is considered in the light of the universally acknowledged truth expressed in the proverb, and it derives ideational and emotional substance from that universal truth. The compositional articulation of the reasoning in proverbs— often reinforced by rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration —coincides with the syntactic articulation.


Potebnia, A. A. Iz lektsii po teorii slovesnosti: basnia, poslovitsa, pogovorka. Kharkov, 1914.
Dal’, V. I. Poslovitsy russkogo naroda [4th ed.]. Moscow, 1957.
Permiakov, G. L. Ot pogovorki do skazki. Moscow, 1970.
Proverbium, Helsinki, 1965–74, nos. 1–24.



1. a short, memorable, and often highly condensed saying embodying, esp with bold imagery, some commonplace fact or experience
2. Ecclesiast a wise saying or admonition providing guidance