Every culture has a collection of wise sayings that offer advice about how to live your life. These sayings are called “proverbs” (practical precepts). Very often these pieces of advice, precepts or principles of one culture are precepts or principles of another, for they are an outgrowth of common experiences.
Each language has its own proverbs. Although the phrasing is unique and contributes to the color of the language, many proverbs convey similar meanings in different forms. For example, the Spanish proverb “Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando” (“A bird in the hand is worth more than a hundred flying”) finds an equivalent in the English proverb: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, in the Dutch proverb: “better one bird in the hand than ten in the air” and in the German proverb: “Lieber den Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach” (Better the sparrow in the hand than the pigeon on the roof).
Interpreting proverbs is often complex, moreover, interpreting proverbs from other cultures is much more difficult than interpreting proverbs in ones own culture.
Even within English-speaking cultures, there is difference of opinion on how to interpret the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss”. Some see it as condemning a person that keeps moving, seeing moss as a positive thing, such as profit; others see it the proverb as praising people that keep moving and developing, seeing moss as a negative thing, such as negative habits. Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Like a Rolling Stone” may refer to the original proverb.
Some authors have created proverbs in their writings, such a J.R.R. Tolkien, and some of these proverbs have made their way into broader society, such as the bumper sticker pictured here:
“Not all those who wander are lost”, a line from the poem “All That is Gold Does Not Glitter” (some things are not as valuable as they appear to be) written by J. R. R. Tolkien for his fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. The poem reads:
Proverbs are used by speakers for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they are used as a way of saying something gently, in a veiled way:
“Two’s Company, but Three’s a Crowd” (couples often enjoy their privacy and dislike having a third person around). This is a proverb, a saying which expresses a general truth. It is not at all impolite, rude, or obscene when used to express a general truth. However, you make it impolite when you use it as a sort of weapon in conversation, a way of suggesting that someone else is in the way and ought to leave.
Other times, they are used to carry more weight in a discussion, to support his position, or even to argue:“Actions Speak Louder Than Words” (people’s actions are more convincing than their words are)
Proverbs can also be used to simply make a conversation or discussion more lively. In many parts of the world, the use of proverbs is a mark of being a good orator:
There are often proverbs that contradict each other, such as “Look before you leap” (consider all aspects of a situation before you take any action) and “He who hesitates is lost.” (a person who doesn’t act decisively is unlikely to succeed) These have been labelled “counter proverbs”. “Counter proverbs” are not the same as a “paradoxical proverb”, a proverb that contains a seeming paradox: “The pen is mightier than sword” (the written word is more powerful than physical force) but “Actions speak louder than words”
The Book of Proverbs is a collection of moral and religious teachings in the form of sayings and proverbs. From The Book of Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible we can conclude with this one:
“A fool can use a proverb about as well as a crippled man can use his legs” (Proverbs 26:7)