Table of Contents

Title Page








What Makes a Man?

Solitude and Patience




Face and Hair

Tall or Short



Wine and Strong Drink








The Home



The Law














Friends, Neighbours, Visitors

Weather and Gardens

Seasons and Hemispheres: Saluting the South

Sleep and Rest



Old and New

First or Second?







Back Cover Material


The author particularly thanks Ian Watt, and also Graeme and Valerie Fisher, Geoffrey Pooch, Robbie Ancell, Joe Gilfillan, Nigel Horrocks, Steve Jennings, Paul Barrett, Graeme Hill and David Stevens.


What is a proverb?

It’s a tricky thing to define – there are so many variables. However, perhaps this is a fair description:

Proverb: an expression which, in a few words, encapsulates a perceived piece of analysis or advice which is applicable within a particular cultural context, and regarded as wisdom through having been entrenched in usage for many years.

But can we feel sure that everything called a proverb can actually be regarded as ‘wisdom’? Only sometimes. ‘All that glisters is not gold.’

Can’t argue with that.

However, other pithy quips identified as proverbs have less traction, and can be downright dodgy. Sometimes their wisdom might have worked well in a bygone era, but time has not treated them kindly. In the cold clear light of the 21st century, the advice given in some proverbs is open to question. For example:

‘A dog, a woman, and a walnut tree,
The more you beat them the better they be.’

And these days the camera certainly can lie.

There is also an alarming number of proverbs which blatantly contradict each other. Take your pick:

‘Birds of a feather flock together’


‘Opposites attract.’

And is

‘Out of sight out of mind’?

or does

‘Absence make the heart grow fonder’?

(A 20th century update also exists: ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else.’)

Then there are the head-scratching proverbs. What can these examples possibly mean?

A dead bee maketh no honey.’

‘A green yule makes a fat churchyard.’

‘An apple, an egg and a nut, you may eat after a slut.’

Does a cat really have nine lives? No it doesn’t. But un-doubtedly there must once have been some reasoning behind the observation.

For several thousand years proverbs have been spoken in a portentous tone, chiselled into marble, embroidered by Jane Austen heroines onto framed linen or posted on handsome internet greetings. The very word itself summons involuntary respect, in spite of the difficulty in defining exactly what it is. But in addition, some pithy epigrams of ‘perceived wisdom’ have gathered around the margins of the usual definition of ‘proverb’. Quotes and slogans, old wives’ tales and catchphrases – even something as simple as the title of a successful book (e.g. Life Begins at Forty) have come into common usage and gained a kind of fragile truth, even if lacking the implied moral authority of traditional historic wisdom.

The present collection scratches the surface of several hundred proverbs, both familiar and obscure, and also includes some adages, maxims and epigrams which have crept into consideration – newcomers on the block which carry a certain illusion of inherent advice, albeit sometimes of questionable basis. We take a close look at just how relevant they really are.

And remember:

‘If you would avoid suspicion, do not lace your shoes in a melon field.’

Yeah, right.

Max Cryer

‘A proverb is to speech what salt is to food.’


‘We brought nothing into the world and it is certain we carry nothing out.’
(1 Timothy 6: 7)

It’s difficult to believe that anyone took seriously the ancient verse:

‘Born on Monday fair of face,
Born on Tuesday full of grace
Born on Wednesday sour and sad,
Born on Thursday merry and glad,
Born on Friday worthily given,
Born on Saturday work for a living,
Born on Sunday never know want.’

A cheerful piece of advice comes from Haiti:

‘A monkey never thinks her baby is ugly.’

‘When the mouse has had its fill, the meal turns bitter.’


In Korea they assess the baby in a different way:

‘A newborn baby has no fear of tigers.’

Africans confront a biological problem:

‘She who gives birth to triplets cannot ask for a third breast.’

And in Morocco the concern is for the vegetable garden:

‘The pumpkin gives birth and the fence has the problem.’

While Bulgarians are both pragmatic and fatalist:

‘Give me luck at my birth, then if you will – throw me on the rubbish.’

But while the Haitians may be cheerful and the Bulgarians pragmatic, some, including the Corsicans, view birth with a sense of deep gloom:

‘At birth your fate is written.’

‘Do not use paper to wrap up fire.’


The Arabs agree:

‘Only three things in life are certain – birth, death and change.’

And for the really gloomy, in 1660 the Rev. T. Fuller reminded us:

‘Birth is the beginning of death.’

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was hardly optimistic in 1840:

‘After your death, you will be what you were before birth.’

At least George Santayana could see some light in 1922:

‘There is no cure for birth and death except for the interval between.’

‘Painted flowers have no scent.’


Take your pick
St Matthew records Jesus as saying:
‘Ask and it shall be given to you.’
(Matthew 7: 7)
In 1738, Jonathan Swift was more cynical:
‘The devil made askers.’

‘He that would avoid old age must hang himself in youth.’



Nature or nurture? Nuggets of ‘wisdom’ exist in most cultures, but together they form a confusing jumble of contradictions about the comparative importance of inheritance and behaviour.

Euripides was confident that

‘Noble fathers have noble children.’

Those who agreed with him echoed the thought:

‘Like breeds like’

which then became:

‘Like father, like son.’

‘A girl with cotton stockings never sees a mouse.’



But some eighteen hundred years later, Noah Webster pointed out that

‘A good cow may have a bad calf’

and traditional Scottish wisdom formed an optimistic opposite impression:

‘An ill cow may have a good calf.’

Sticking with the farmyard metaphor is the old favourite:

‘There is a black sheep in every flock’

and Native Americans have long held that

‘Not every sweet root gives birth to sweet grass.’

So it’s clear that ‘Like father, like son’ is not a universal truth.

‘A fog cannot be dispelled by a fan.’


Arguments still fly either way. Do children follow the precepts, values and characteristics of their antecedents, or do circumstances and contexts contribute to the make-up of individuals who might not exactly reflect their parents?

Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina proclaimed in 1639:

‘Birth is much ... but breeding is more.’

So possibly children don’t necessarily reflect their parents’ characteristics. Since 1460 we’ve been told instead that

‘Manners make the man’

which seems to eliminate birth as a deciding factor. But more than 200 years later Thomas Fuller revised this to:

‘Manners and money make a gentleman.’

From the Bible we learn that

‘A tree is known by its fruit.’

(Luke 6: 44)

Does this mean that people are judged by the way their children behave, or that children are judged by the reputation of their parents?

‘A white glove often conceals a dirty hand.’



While on the subject of fruit and breeding, another way of saying ‘Like father, like son’ is:

‘An apple never falls far from the tree.’

This doesn’t fit at all well with those maxims which favour the black sheep theory. Apples always fall directly downwards because of gravity, directly under the tree on which they were hanging. Growing and flourishing in that situation is unlikely, as soil is already occupied by roots underneath and light blocked by branches above. An apple which rolls away from the parent tree has a greater chance of flourishing, but apparently this is not what the proverb wants us to think.


‘The sun loses nothing by shining into a puddle.’


How long does it take to make a gentleman? Chinese wisdom has it that

‘One generation opens the road upon which another generation travels.’

In 1598, Romeis Courtier’s Academy defined the time limit:

‘It takes three generations to make a gentleman.’

Presumably the ‘Like father, like son’ factor applies for the first two of these generations.

But even so, things aren’t always straightforward. A Lancashire proverb says that even if a family moves up from poor circumstances, the rise will be temporary – followed by a fall back to where they came from:

‘Clogs to clogs in three generations.’

However, this doesn’t seem to have applied to the Kennedys, Windsors, Rockefellers and Rothschilds.

‘A serpent, though put in a bamboo tube, cannot crawl straight.’


‘It runs in the blood like wooden legs.’

This Cheshire proverb appears to mean that not every fault of character can be blamed on one’s genes – just as an amputated leg isn’t hereditary.


Can a polished appearance, expensive tailoring and fine grooming give a semblance of good breeding? Not according to an Argentinian proverb which appeared in English in 1639:

‘It is not the fine coat that makes the gentleman.’

In Spain, it is said of anyone overly conscious of an elegant background that:

‘A man who prides himself on his ancestry is like a potato – the best part is under ground.’

‘The shoe knows whether the sock has holes.’


Since 1594, cynical observers have noted that

‘The higher the baboon climbs, the more undesirable are the parts exposed.’

And in Mexico the message is blunt:

‘Virtue is not inherited.’

However, British clergyman John Ray confronted believers in fine breeding with the ultimate put-down in 1737:

‘You come of good blood – but so does a black pudding.’

‘The sun shines on dung but is not tainted.’



‘Judge not a man by his mother’s words ... listen to his neighbours.’
‘When the elephant sinks into the pit, even the frog gives him a backward kick.’
‘Many can drive an ox ... few can plough.’
‘A nobleman, though drowning, would never dog-paddle.’
‘The swamp stands aloof as if not related to the river.’
‘It is safe to lend barley to him who has oats.’
‘Many a scoundrel marries not for the sheep but for the wool.’
‘The sleeping shrimp is carried away with the current.’
‘All ask if a man be rich, none ask if he be good.’
‘Eggs must not quarrel with stones.’
‘Mediocrity means climbing molehills without sweating.’
‘Man’s mind is a watch which needs winding up daily.’
‘He who has lost his oxen is always hearing bells.’
‘Every path has its puddle.’


Patrick Dennis’s fictional Aunty Mame (1958) had a firm belief:

‘Life is a banquet – and most sons of bitches are starving.’

And there are some who follow Walter B. Pitkin’s 1932 decree that

‘Life begins at forty.’

So did the previous 39 years not count? Suspended animation perhaps...

‘The well-fed have no religion.’


In 1553, Thomas Wilson’s The Art of Rhetoric commented on the quality of life:

‘They liued long enough, that have liued well enough.’

And Scottish essayist William Drummond condensed the matter in A Midnight’s Trance (1619):

‘Who liueth well, liueth long.’

The ‘modern’ version emerged in the Rev. T. Fuller’s The Holy State and the Profane State (1642):

‘He lives long that lives well.’

But can you rely on that?

Cervantes had disagreed in Don Quixote (1605):

‘He that lives long suffers much.’

And Henry Bohn (1885) agreed with Cervantes:

‘They seldom live well who think they shall live long.’

‘A needle is sharp only at one end.’


William Wager, however, had disagreed all along, and in c.1569 published a book with a title declaring his belief:

‘The longest thou livest the more foole thou art.’

While British folklore since 1678 has reminded everyone that the chores still have to be done:

‘They that live longest must go farthest for wood.’

‘As his name is, so is he.’

Although this has the might of the Bible behind it (1 Samuel 25: 25), it must be difficult to know how to interpret it if you have an ordinary name like Fred or Sue.

‘Even a white lily casts a black shadow.’



An ancient Latin maxim pronounces sternly on the continuance of life:

‘He is unworthy of life that gives no life to another.’

This appears to criticise voluntary celibacy (Roman Catholic nuns and priests, for example). But it seems rather harsh on those men and women who bitterly regret not being able to have children through no fault of their own.

‘A blind man cannot judge colours.’

(Geoffrey Chaucer)

Take your pick
You may be inclined to believe that
‘Slow and steady wins the race’
but remember also that
‘Time waits for no man.’

‘An onion will not produce a rose.’