What is a
(revised 12 September 1999)
"Where there’s a will, there’s a way." When you hear or read the words just cited, you will readily recognize that you have encountered a proverb. You should also find it quite easy to recall additional instances of this literary or, perhaps better, protoliterary genre. Does this mean that you (or anybody else) can easily say what proverbs are? Hardly so, and numerous proverb scholars have in fact despaired of the task of defining the familiar subject matter of their expertise. In Archer Taylor's formulation of 1931, "the definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking[…]. An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that is not" (The Proverb 3). In a well-informed encyclopaedia article of 1994, Peter Grzybek still concludes: "there is no generally accepted definition which covers all specifics of the proverbial genre" (Simple Forms 227). Recognizing the contested character of all expert definitions, Wolfgang Mieder performed the interesting experiment of asking fifty-five educated nonexperts to write their definition of a proverb on a piece of paper. The following "composite definition" is based on words that occur "from four to twenty times in the collected definitions": a proverb is "a phrase, saying, sentence, statement, or expression of the folk which contains above all wisdom, truth, morals, experience, lessons, and advice concerning life and which has been handed down from generation to generation" (Proverbs Are Never out of Season 24).
Excerpted from Paul Hernadi and Francis Steen, "The Tropical Landscapes of Proverbia: A Crossdisciplinary Travelogue." Style 33, 1 (Spring 1999). Full text.
"A proverb is a short sentence based on long experience."
-- Miguel de Cervantes
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1986.
Grzybek, Peter. "Proverb." Simple Forms: An Encyclopaedia of Simple Text-Types in Lore and Literature. Ed. Walter Koch. Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1994. 227-41.
Mieder, Wolfgang. Proverbs Are Never Out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
Taylor, Archer. The Proverb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1931.