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A Dictionary Of American Proverbs

June 2024
1min read

Wolfgang Mieder, editor in chief; Oxford University Press; 736 pages.

The easy way to compile a dictionary like this one would be to buy eight or ten proverb collections already in print, select your favorites, and publish them as a brand-new book. The hard way—so hard, in fact, that it has never been attempted before on this scale—would be to spend decades listening to Americans speaking, taking note of every adage and aphorism. In the mid-1940s Margaret Bryant, chairperson of the American Dialect Society’s Committee on Proverbial Sayings, decided on the second approach. With no fixed publishing schedule in mind, she and her colleagues at the society began recording on slips of paper each proverb they heard spoken. In their definition of what was American they included English sayings and ones known all over the world, provided they were used in conversation here.

In 1980 the editors of this volume began the task of editing, sorting, and annotating the 150,000 citation slips Bryant and her associates had by then accumulated. Once the many duplicates had been weeded out, some 15,000 proverbs and their close variants remained. They are presented here along with a list of the states and the Canadian provinces where they were recorded. To give an idea of how old each proverb is, the editors provide the dates of the first printed reference in England and in America. But for thousands of entries there is no previous source—they are being published here for the first time.

Although many proverbs recall the unwanted advice of a relative (“A boy’s best friend is his mother”; “Learn, see, do something beautiful every day is a prescription for happiness”), others give expression to enduring folk wisdom. “Life is short and full o’ blisters,” they say in Mississippi, while in Texas “Every man has got to kill his own snakes” and in New York “A dog with money is addressed ‘Mr. Dog.’” But even folk wisdom, it turns out, can be contradictory. As variants of the proverb “A new broom sweeps clean,” the editors list “A new broom never sweeps clean” and “A new broom sweeps clean but an old one gets in the corners.” Moreover, for every New Yorker certain that “Diligent study makes for a full cup of life’s pleasures,” researchers found a South Carolinian who believed “Study long, study wrong” and an lowan persuaded that “The more you study, the more you forget.”

Since the researchers were all volunteers and some, inevitably, were more diligent than others, the notes detailing the geographical distribution of each proverb approach the random rather than the scientific. Still, these glimpses into regional affinities are sometimes as intriguing as the proverbs themselves. Only in South Carolina and New York, apparently, do people like to say “If you don’t live in the house, you don’t know when it leaks” and “Put cream and sugar on a fly and it tastes very much like a black raspberry.”

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