What Are Proverbs?

What is a proverb?
Proverbs are commonly used expressions that illustrate a specific point. They differ from idioms because idioms don’t always make literal sense, but if you have a context, you can usually work out what a proverb means. Here are a few examples of idioms:

  • I passed the exam by the skin of my teeth.
  • I’m fed up with waiting for him!
  • He always rubs me up the wrong way.

If we were to look at these literally, they’re just nonsensical. Since they are often used, however, most people will know what they mean even though they don’t have any skin on their teeth, haven’t been fed lately, and didn’t get a massage from a clumsy person.

Proverbs, on the other hand, do make a weird sort of sense, especially when you have the context of the situation.

  • My mom was always against beatings, but my father would say: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
  • You really made a fool of yourself, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.
  • Don’t just invest in that business because it sounds nice. Check out their financials; you need to look before you leap.
  • I searched and searched through my overstuffed closet, but finding my best tie was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
  • After he was rude to me, I wanted to hit him, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

In our first example, the fictional father is taking words straight out of the book of Proverbs in the bible. You can see that the discussion is about beatings or corporeal punishment. You might use a rod to beat someone, and if a child is spoiled through lack of discipline, he or she will always insist on getting their own way. Whether you agree with beating naughty kids or not, you can see what the proverb means.

Our other examples are non-biblical, but they are so old, and so well used, that finding their origins would be difficult.

“Crying over spilled milk” means regretting something that has already happened and can’t be undone. “Looking before you leap” means getting all the facts before you commit yourself. And although the guy who can’t find his best tie isn’t literally “looking for a needle in a haystack,” we can see that he thinks the task is as difficult. The last little bit of wisdom, “two wrongs don’t make a right,” is really easy to understand. If I were to hit someone because they were rude to me, I might have a reason for my action, but it still wouldn’t be right.

You can get whole dictionaries full of proverbs, but some are more commonly used than others. Here are a few examples with their meanings:

I wasn’t sure how to behave in the high-class gathering, so I thought: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and just followed their example.

This proverb means behaving as everybody else does, and some people even abbreviate it to “When in Rome…” because it’s so commonly used.

I was going to argue with the shop manager after he treated me so badly, but the pen is mightier than the sword, so I wrote a bad review on Yelp instead.

Written arguments are often stronger than spoken ones, or even using violence.

You really ought to ask for help from others. After all, no man is an island.

An island is all alone, surrounded by water, but people are surrounded by other people, and we can influence or help each other.

How can you call others lazy when you are so lazy yourself? People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Don’t always point out your own faults in others. You have the same faults, and if someone were to mention them, you would have no defense.

I’ve been waiting for this letter for weeks! Still, better late than never!

Something that should have happened earlier took a long time, but at least it happened eventually.

You and I have a lot in common. Let’s be friends! Birds of a feather flock together.

People who are similar to each other often get along very well. They hang out with each other in the same way that birds of the same species often like to congregate.

I could write a book about my holiday, but instead, I think this photo explains it all. A picture paints a thousand words.

Sometimes, pictures are even more expressive than any words that could be said. You can get the whole idea just by looking at it, instead of having to read a lot of text.

When they released the new PlayStation, I was waiting outside the shop before it opened. The early bird catches the worm.

If you’re quick to go in search of what you want, your chances of success are greater. But was the worm also early? Perhaps he was just coming back from last night’s party.

Proverbs can be very cliched because they are used a lot, but they do come in handy at times when you’re looking for a good way to say something and want a phrase that everyone will identify with because it reflects accepted wisdom.

(Photo courtesy of James Lumb)

  • I always thought that proverbs and idioms were basically the same. I see I was wrong. Proverbs are more ancient wisdom handed down from generation to generation.

  • Is there a difference between generic proverbs and biblical proverbs? Or are both of these just considered proverbs and some happen to come out of the Bible? Can proverb be something that doesn’t come out of the Bible?

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