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I have nurtured a wish for some time now to learn something more about proverbs. These words have come up in the course of several social conversations and, although they have had some sort of fascination for me, they triggered in me a bid to get to know much more about them.

From the definition I picked up casually, I came across that of Longman’s publishing company, founded in London in 1724. The publishers’ notion of a proverb was “a short well-known statement that gives advice or expresses something that is generally true”. I supposed that there was much more between the lines and this got me on further research.

Because of their innate flexibility and widespread handling, proverbs were found to be very useful and attractive to speakers and writers for social reasons among others. Moreover, their purpose served to provide a way of saying something gently or in a veiled manner.

Actually, proverbs render additional weight to arguments and debates although their effect is additional liveliness to the occasion. Folklore and literature are said to have injected proverbs even when they found their way into the strategies of social workers, teachers, preachers and, yes, of politicians as well.  All along, proverbs have been found to portray much more of a country’s culture than any other origin. Ethical divergencies among the users stress choices between the good or the bad of environment, to mention only one, and other sectors.

Ghamel bhall-GhawdxinApart from the charge of general ingratitude evident in the English language phrase “eat and run”, this very popular proverb rings a bell which tolls in a Maltese version. “Ghamel bhall-Ghawdxin” (Do as the Gozitans, the inhabitants of the Sister Island of Malta, do). This, naturally, highlighted a lesser degree of a significant accusation of “bad manners” in departing from a social gathering  immediately after the conclusion of a meal in the place of an expected extension of time for more socializing in conformity with the local tradition and custom.

Another aspect is to be shown in the Spanish attitude in proverb form with “Women and sheep should be home after dark” or “A duck, a woman and a goat are bad if they are thin”. Surprizing, isn’t it?

There is also a wide variety of proverbs with the markings of different origins. Examples handed down the generations include “The other man’s bread tastes sweeter” (German); “Talk does not cook rice” (Chinese); “Don’t judge a book by its cover” (English); “A word is not a bird; once flown you can never catch it” (Russian) and finally, “You cannot make an omelette  without breaking eggs” (English/French).

Many proverbs still come onstage like hail. They are not all understandable and, more importantly, more acceptable. However, those that have and will still survive are supported by their innate veracity and usefulness under any circumstances. How many have come through unstained through all the handling in business advertising, book and film titles, is a good testimony of their value. Briefly, some are lame while others are pregnant with meaning.
Free cheese mouse trap
Some proverbs are somewhat witty and amusing such as the Russian one “The only free cheese is in the mousetrap”, or the Arab   “Buy the neighbour before you buy the house”, not far on the list from the Yiddish “For example is not proof”. France’s contribution  contends with “”The absent are always wrong” , China’s  “If Heaven throws you a plum, open your mouth”, and Slovenia’s “Never whisper to the deaf or wink  at the blind” , hilarious mostly, I dare say, but the tongue-in-cheek  vein is not overlooked either.

Proverbial advice is likely to be more common and popular when it goes against exaggeration “Don’t make a mountain out of an ant-hill”; against foolhardiness or stupid risk “Look before you leap”. Once again this rings a bell of a local nature when we recall the recent news of unaware foreign tourists diving off Comino’s (Gozo) cliffs and ending up injured or hospitalized. Advice  against accidents “It’s better to be safe than sorry”; against exuberances “Too many cooks spoil the broth” and against underestimation “Don’t bite the hand that  feeds you”.

Understanding and misunderstanding also rear their heads within the proverb context. Understanding proverbs provide, initially, a partial success which is closely followed by a “brick wall” of mere guessing or conjectures. According to the author Archer Taylor, he sees defining a proverb as “an incommunicable quality, a mode of discerning one from the other”.  In the book titled “The Perception of Proverbiality” (1984) the authoress Shirley Arora who coined the latter work title, listed typical stylistic features as Alliteration (Forgive and Forget); Paralellism (Nothing ventured, nothing gained); Rhyme (When the cat is away, the mice will play), and Ellypsis (Once bitten, twice shy).

You either know something or you know where to look for information about it

It is believed that History’s ancient scholars Homer, Plato and Aristotle each sweated their seven togas to compose and decipher proverbs but without notable mileage. I, humbly, take umbrage and relief from a sage in the English Literature which says: “Knowledge can be of two kinds. You either know something or you know where to look for information about it”.



Adrian Mercieca _ teacher Author: Adrian Mercieca
About the Author:  Adrian Mercieca is a full-time teacher at the European School of English and was a former Law student at the University of Malta, then turned Journalist in Malta, winning a 3-year scholarship in Journalism in the US, and later in Italy broadcast at RAI and the Vatican Radio. He came first in a Maltese Public Service Examination (Diplomacy) in Malta and obtained a year’s scholarship in British Diplomatic Studies at Oxford University. Served as career-diplomat until appointed ambassador.