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Proverbs in ELT

May 16, 2006

In world that appears to be torn by irreconcilable differences, it is refreshing to find that humanity everywhere is united by the collective homespun wisdom expressed in proverbs.

Hello again,
I often use proverbs as lesson material when teaching English to speakers of other languages because they provide a unifying basis for a multinational class. As soon as I produce my list of proverbs in English, the different nationalities represented in the group seize on a few of them with a reassuring sense of recognition. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, many hands make light work, or, conversely, too...

... too many cooks spoil the broth: such old saws seem to crop up everywhere.

A universal imagery
One reason the world's proverbs show such a high degree of congruity is that they encapsulate observations of the phenomenal world and those observations become metaphors for human activity. Thus nature in all its manifestations is richly reflected in proverbs: the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; every cloud has a silver lining; birds of a feather flock together; the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; honey catches more flies than gall; rain before seven, fine by eleven; red sky at night: shepherd's delight; still waters run deep; it never rains but it pours.

A truism for all occasions...
Proverbs are a rich source of readymade philosophy for almost any aspect of human activity. Thus, depending on your favored attitude, you can usually find one to suit the occasion. And because they are part of a shared wisdom, they are safe opinions to voice; nobody will challenge your point of view. As they are so universally recognised, it is possible for them to tweaked and recast with the result that the old saying is made specific to a new situation. I trawled the British National Corpus and came up with the following examples:
Familiarity never breeds contempt here, only a growing affection.

  • That would be jumping out of the frying-pan into a raging inferno.
  • A bird in the hand is never worth an infinite number of birds in the bush.
  • A bird in the hand is worth two votes for Bush.
  • I wanted a bird in the hand, but this one was practically in Shepherd's Bush.
  • Too many Cooks did not spoil the travellers' broth and by the end of the nineteenth century Cooks had offices across Europe and America, Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the Middle East and India.
  • Many computers make light work.

...or for every prejudice
Not all proverbs are politically correct. Mysogyny is one of the most widely reflected prejudices embodied in proverbs. An old English saying 'a woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more you beat them, the better they be' occurs in several European languages. I came across a collection of Korean proverbs on the same topic while surfing the Internet, such as:

  • If you don't beat your woman for three days, she becomes a fox.
  • If you listen to a woman's advice, the house comes to ruin; if you don't listen, the house comes to shame.
  • If a woman cries; no good luck for three years.
Proverbs in praise of women are thinner on the ground, although a Chinese example struck me as heartening: a hundred men may make an encampment but it takes a woman to make a home.

And this brings me back to my original point that proverbs are a unifying variety of folk wisdom, with similar ideas, imagery and forms being found all over the world. The widespread nature of the more popular ideas is attributable, I surmise, to their ancient origin. They can be traced back to the Bible of course, to classical literature and on through to the Middle Ages, when they were especially popular. Proverbs abound, for example, in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare too, uses proverbs liberally throughout his works. They have the flavour of a long-abandoned oral tradition that predates all our written sources. Just as some folk tales turn up inexplicably in, for example, Scotland and Turkey, so similar proverbs can found in many countries. Here is a selection of proverbs I have collected in my dealings with overseas students, with what I would guess to be their equivalents in English and if the equivalents are not obvious, they make excellent debating points:


  • Beware of a silent dog and still water (Still waters run deep)

  • He who has once burnt his mouth always blows his soup (Once bitten, twice shy)

  • One beats the bush, another catches the bird (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush)

  • Yesterday's promises, like tomorrow's, never come (Jam tomorrow)


  • Do not remove a fly from your friend's forehead with a hatchet
    (A sledgehammer to crack a nut)

  • Men in the game are blind to what men looking on see clearly (You can't see the wood for the trees)

  • There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same (There's more than one way to skin a cat)


  • A thousand curses never tore a shirt (Bricks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me)


  • The old bear falls into old traps (You can't teach an old dog new tricks)

  • When we sing everyone hears us; when we sigh nobody hears us (Laugh and the world laughs with you)


  • The tongue is to be feared more than the sword (The pen is mightier than the sword)

  • Ten men, ten minds. (Two heads are better than one)


  • Only a fool tests the water with both feet (Fools rush in where angels fear to tread)


    • The sieve says to the needle, you have a hole in your head (The pot calling the kettle black)

    What makes proverbs so enduring?

    The fact that proverbs survive and are capable of variation to suit new circumstances suggests that we are fond of them. We recognise their triteness yet still we use them. I'm not sure how we could go about explaining their continued popularity other than by speculating, so here goes. It seems to me that familiarity breeds comfort. Because we recognize them and because we know that time has lent them authority we feel safe in accepting the truth of their sentiments. If we need to advise somebody to be cautious, it is acceptable to say, with a knowing shake of the head, 'well, of course, fools rush in…., or ' I hope you'll look before you leap'. For some reason people are less offended if you wrap up an unpleasant idea in a proverb than if you state it bluntly. In our troubled times, when we seem so riven by differences that are fuelling hostility between nations and between different cultures, perhaps it is salutary to remember that we are all brothers (and sisters) under the skin.

    Why not share your own proberbs with us?
    Bye for now.

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    1. susan kaden Says:

      Thanks Brenda
      I felt inspired reading your ideas on proverbs. I teach adults in China, who are passive in response therefore it is good to find part of their culture that they feel inspired and enthusiastic to research and talk about. I have found out many stories this way. China is very steeped in traditional literature such as poetry so I have begun classes in poetry writing now. This has been a huge success with their own poems as well as translating traditional ones.
      Thanks for the insight

    1. Btownsend Says:

      I'm glad this was useful, Susan. I too have found that students from the Far East are drawn to sympolism and metaphor in language learning. I have worked on folk stories with classes very often and was struck by the enthusiasm Japanese students showed for telling some of their allegorical traditional stories.

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