Proverbs

The proverb is a minor form of folklore, compared at least to folktales and “muckle sangs”, big ballads that can take ages to perform. (I’ve been known to stretch out the ballad of Hynd Horn to at least a quarter hour, if not twenty minutes.) One of its merits is its brevity. It has been defined in a kind of a way by Lord John Russell as “One man’s wit, and all men’s wisdom”, which works pretty well. One of the things to note about the genre is that it’s world-wide. Everyone seems to have proverbs, from illiterate tribes in jungles to sophisticated urbanites, and it’s interesting (IMHO) to compare and contrast, over time and space, the various ways in which these ideas are expressed. For instance, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” occurs in French as Moineau à la main vaut mieux que grue qui vole, literally “A sparrow in the hand is worth more than a crane that flies.” Other countries vary the number of birds or their type. Tracing connections is hard however. Take the Russian

Zavtra, zavtra, ne segodnja,
Tak lenivcy govorjat;
Zavtra budem my rabotat’,
A segodnja – poguljat’!

This can be translated roughly as “Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today, That’s what the lazy people say; Tomorrow we will work all day, but for now we’ll go and play.”
This directly echoes the German

Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute,
Sagen alle faulen Leute.

(Tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today, say all lazy fellows.) One might think it’s an individual descendant of an old saying, originating in ancient Greece – the idea of putting off weighty matters till the morrow is first met in Plutarch, who has Archias say οὐκοῦν εἰς αὔριον τὰ σπουδαῖα, “We’ll do the big stuff tomorrow.” But actually it’s what it looks like, a direct translation from the German, from the opening lines of a poem by Christian Felix Weisse (1726—1804), “The Postponement” (Der Aufschub) from his Kleine Lieder für Kinder (1766). The original runs:

Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute! Sprechen immer träge Leute.

Weisse wrote a lot of verse, and some poems were set by such as Mozart and Beethoven. And as it turns out, this was translated into Russian as Otsročka (1769) by B M Fedorov (1794—1875), finding a place in all prerevolutionary school anthologies and hence to the mental inventory of the nation.

As for Scotland, there are two streams of tradition feeding the river of proverbs: the Scots-English and the Gaelic-Celtic. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been other influences of course, such as French, with the Auld Alliance and Mary Queen of Scots and so forth. As an example of the Celtic, take the ironic Gaelic proverb, Gu de bhios saor, cha dean a’ ghaoth torrach (Whoever may be blameless, the wind doesn’t make pregnant). Naturally proverbs in Scots echo the English a lot of the time; for instance, the above bird proverb appears as “A bird in the hand ’s worth twa fleeing by” in a grand collection by Andrew Henderson (1832). In that volume are quite a few quotation proverbs, or so-called Wellerisms, named for their humorous use by Sam Weller in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836). As the dates show, their use is a lot earlier than Dickens.The format for this type is “Rhubarb, rhubarb”, said the So-and-So, when he did so and so. This is usually done with humour in mind, as Sam did all the time, and often uses puns. One of my favourites is “These wee things are sent to try us, as the auld wife said when she saw the small judge.”

The auld wife crops up again and again as the pawky observer of the human condition, as e.g. “Every little helps”, as the auld wife said when she gaed to pish in the sea. – That by the way may have come from the Dutch, where it’s “Alle beetjes helpen”, zei de mug en hij pieste in zee – referring to a gnat. But the wife isn’t always old, she just represents womankind, or even mankind, though there’s generally an element of satire, or moral evaluation: A begun turn’s half ended, quo’ the wife, when she stuck the graip in the midden. (Compare the English Well begun is half done, in the Oxford Book of English Proverbs 877.) – The “graip”, I should explain, is a garden fork, an old Scots word that seems connected to the Norwegian dialect greip, a dung-fork.
Other characters that crop up are animals, e.g. There’s baith meat and music here, quo’ the dog, when he ate the piper’s bag, and, of course, the Devil, a real personality in Scottish folklore and literature: Muckle din and little woo, quo’ the deil when he clippet the sow. (The “woo” is “wool”.) Some Wellerisms take on a life or development of their own. In English the characters of the Bishop (or other clergyman) and the Actress (or other woman of the world) are attributed various double-entendre sayings, the addition of the formula “… as the actress said to the bishop” making something saucy out of a quite proper remark. My own favourite again is from a “Saint” novel by Leslie Charteris: That’s all there is, as the Bishop said to the Actress.

A development of this was the so-called “Swiftie”, a satirical name from the template being used with boring regularity in the children’s Tom Swift books by Victor Appleton: “So-and-so”, said Tom —-ly. That is, insert an appropriate adverb, particularly one which has a direct reference or connection with what is said, e.g. “We’ve got to hurry!” said Tom swiftly. The best I know appeared towards the end of the Profumo Affair [note: the lady in question was the mistress of the Minister of War and a Russian diplomat, and maybe some others]: “I think I’ve heard enough about Christine Keeler”, said Tom tartly.

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One response to “Proverbs

  1. “What’s not to like,” said the thoughtless oaf, when he bit his tongue.

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