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Proverbs and Sayings

Proverbs and sayings are facts of language. They are collected in dictionaries. There are special dictionaries of proverbs and sayings. It is impossible to arrange proverbs and sayings in a form that would present a pattern even though they have some typical features by which it is 1 possible to determine whether or not we are dealing with one. These [typical features are: rhythm, sometimes rhyme and/or alliteration. But the most characteristic feature of a proverb or a saying lies not |fn its formal linguistic expression, but in the content-form of the utter-pnce. As is known, a proverb or a saying is a peculiar mode of utterance Vhich is mainly characterized by its brevity. The utterance itself, taken at Bits face value, presents a pattern which can be successfully used for other liitterances. The peculiarity of the use of a proverb lies in the fact that Ithe actual wording becomes a pattern which needs no new wording to [suggest extensions of meaning which are contextual. In other words, la proverb presupposes a simultaneous application of two meanings: [the face-value or primary meaning, and an extended meaning drawn Hrom the context, but bridled by the face-value meaning. In other words, [the proverb itself becomes a vessel into which new content is poured. IThe actual wording of a proverb, its primary meaning, narrows the [field of possible extensions of meaning, i. e. the filling up of the form. That is why we may regard the proverb as a pattern of thought. Soit is I'm every other case at any other level of linguistic research. Abstract [formulas offer a wider range of possible applications to practical pur-Iposes than concrete words, though they have the same purpose.

Almost every good writer will make use of language idioms, by-[phrases and proverbs. As Gorki has it, they are the natural ways in ^hich speech develops.

Proverbs and sayings have certain purely linguistic features which [must always be taken into account in order to distinguish them from [ordinary sentences. Proverbs are brief statements showing in condensed [form the accumulated life experience of the community and serving as |conventional practical symbols for abstract ideas. They are usually I didactic and image bearing. Many of them through frequency of repetition have become polished and wrought into verse-like shape, as in the [following:

"to cut one's coat according to one's cloth."

"Early to bed and early to rise,

Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

Brevity in proverbs manifests itself also in the omission of connec-|fives, as in:

"First come, first served." "Out of sight, out of mind."

But the main feature distinguishing proverbs and sayings from ordinary utterances remains their semantic aspect. Their literal meaning is suppressed by what may be termed their transferred meaning. In other words, one meaning (literal) is the form for another meaning (transferred) which contains the idea. Proverbs and sayings, if used appropriately, will never lose their freshness and vigour. The most noticeable thing about the functioning of sayings, proverbs and catch-phrases is that they may be handled not in their fixed form (the traditional model) but with modifications. These modifications, however, will never break away from the invariants to such a degree that the correlation between the invariant model of a word-combination and its variant ceases to be perceived by the reader. The predictability of a variant of a word-combination is lower in comparison with its invariant. Therefore the use of such a unit in a modified form will always arrest our attention, causing a much closer examination of the wording of the utterance in order to get at the idea. Thus, the proverb 'all is not gold that glitters' appears in Byron's "Don Juan" in the following form and environment where at first the meaning may seem obscure:

"How all the needy honourable misters,

Each out-at-elbow peer or desperate dandy,

The watchful mothers, and the careful sisters (Who, by the by, when clever, are more handy

At making matches where "t'is gold that glisters" l' Than their he relatives), like flies o'er candy

Buzz round the Fortune with their busy battery,

To turn her head with waltzing and with flattery."

Out of the well-known proverb Byron builds a periphrasis, the meaning of which is deciphered two lines below: 'the Fortune', that is, 'a marriageable heiress').

It has already been.pointed out that Byron is fond of playing with stable word-combinations,.sometimes injecting new vigour into the components, sometimes entirely disregarding the semantic unity of the combination. In the following lines, for instance, each word of the phrase safe and sound gets its full meaning.

"I leave Don Juan for the present, safe Not sound, poor fellow, but severely wounded;"

The proverb Hell is paved with good intentions and the set expression to mean well are used by Byron in a peculiar way, thus making the reader re-appraise the hackneyed phrases.

(< ................ if he warr'd

Or loved, it was with what we call the best Intentions, which form all mankind's trump card,

To be produced when brought up to the test, The statesman, hero, harlot, lawyerward

Off each attack, when people are in quest

1 the archaic form of glitters

Of their designs, by saying they meant well. ['Tis pity that such meaning should pave hell"

The stylistic effect produced by such uses of proverbs and sayings is the result of a twofold application of language means, which, as has already been emphasized, is an indispensable condition for the appearance of all stylistic devices. The modified form of the proverb is perceived against the background of the fixed form, thus enlivening the latter. Sometimes this injection of new vigour into the proverb causes a slight semantic re-evaluation of its generally accepted meaning. When a proverb is used in its unaltered form it can be qualified as an expressive means (EM) of the language; when used in a modified variant it assumes the one of the features of an SD, it acquires a stylistic meaning, though not becoming an SD.

We shall take only a few of the numerous examples of the stylistic use of proverbs and sayings to illustrate the possible ways of decomposing the units in order simply to suggest the idea behind them:

"Come!" he said, "milk's spilt." (Galsworthy) (from 'It is no use crying over spilt milk!').

"But to all that moving experience there had been a shadow (a dark lining to the silver cloud), insistent and plain, which disconcerted her," (Maugham) (from 'Every cloud has a silver lining').

"We were dashed uncomfortable in the frying pan, but we should have been a damned sight worse off in the fire" (Maugham) (from 'Out of the frying-pan into the fire').

"You know which side the law's buttered." (Galsworthy) (from 'His bread is buttered on both sides').

This device is used not only in the belles-lettres style. Here are some instances from newspapers and magazines illustrating the stylistic use of proverbs, sayings and other word-combinations:

"...and whether the Ministry of Economrc Warfare is being allowed enough financial rope to do its worst." (from 'Give a thief rope enough and he'll hang himself).

"The waters will remain sufficiently troubled for somebody's fishing to be profitable" (Economist) (from 'It is good fishing in troubled waters').

A newspaper editorial once had the following headline:

"Proof of the Pudding" (from 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating').

Here is a recast of a well-known proverb used by an advertizing agency:

"Early to bed and early to rise

No useunless you advertize"

(from 'Early to bed and early to rise* }

Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise')*

Notice this recast by Lewis Carroll of a well-known saying:1

"Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves."


An epigram is a stylistic device akin to a proverb, the only difference being that epigrams are coined by individuals whose names we know, while proverbs are the coinage of the people. In other words, we are always aware of the parentage of an epigram and therefore, when using one, we usually make a reference to its author.

Epigrams are terse, witty, pointed statements, showing the ingenious turn of mind of the originator. They always have a literary-bookish air about them that distinguishes them from proverbs. Epigrams possess a great degree of independence and therefore, if taken out of the context, will retain the wholeness of the idea they express. They have a generalizing function and are self-sufficient. The most characteristic feature of an epigram is that the sentence gets accepted as a word-combination and often becomes part of the language as a whole. Like proverbs, epigrams can be expanded to apply to abstract notions (thus embodying different spheres of application). Brevity is the essential quality of the epigram. A. Chekhov once said that brevity is the sister of talent; 'Brevity is the soul of the wit' holds true of any epigram.

Epigrams are often confused with aphorisms and paradoxes. It is difficult to draw a demarcation line between them, the distinction being very subtle. Real epigrams are true to fact and that is why they win general recognition and acceptance.

Let us turn to examples. Somerset Maugham in "The Razor's Edge" says:

"Art is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own;;purpose."

This statement is interesting from more than one point of view. It shows the ingenious turn of mind of the writer, it gives an indirect definition of art as Maugham understands it, it is complete in itself even if taken out of the context. But still this sentence is not a model epigram because it lacks one essential quality, viz. brevity. It is too long and therefore cannot function in speech as a ready-made language unit. Besides, it lacks other features which are inherent in epigrams and make them similar to proverbs, i.e. rhythm, alliteration and often rhyme. It cannot be expanded to other spheres of life, it does Hot generalize.

Compare this sentence with the following used by the same author in the same novel.

"A God that can be understood is no God."

This sentence seems to meet all the necessary requirements of the epigram: it is brief, generalizing, witty and can be expanded in its application. The same applies to Byron's

"...in the days of old men made manners; Manners now ftiake men" ("Don Juan")

or Keats's

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

Writers who seek aesthetic precision use the epigram abundantly; others use it to characterize the hero of their work. Somerset Maugham is particularly fond of it and many of his novels and stories abound in epigrams. Here are some from "The Painted Veil."

"He that bends shall be made straight."

"Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking

place of failure..."

"Mighty is he who conquers himself."

There are utterances which in form are epigrammaticthese are verses and in particular definite kinds of verses. The last two lines of a sonnet are called epigrammatic because, according to the semantic structure of this form of verse, they sum up and synthesize what has been said before. The heroic couplet, a special compositional form of verse, is also a suitable medium for epigrams, for instance:

"To observations which ourselves, we make, We grow more partial for th' observer's sake."

(Alexander Pope)

There are special dictionaries which are called "Dictionaries of Quotations." These, in fact, are mostly dictionaries of epigrams. What is worth quoting must always contain some degree of the generalizing quality and if it comes from a work of poetry will have metre (and sometimes rhyme). That is why the works of Shakespeare, Pope, Byron and many other great English poets are said to be full of epigrammatic statements.

The epigram is, in fact, a supra-phrasal unit in sense, though not in structure (see p. 194). " "

Poetry is epigrammatic in essence. It always strives for brevity of expression, leaving to the mind of the reader the pleasure of amplifying the idea. Byron's

"The drying up a single tear has more

Of honest fame, than shedding seas of gore,"

is a strongly worded epigram, which impresses the* reader with its generalizing truth. It may be regarded as a supra-phrasal unit inasmuch as it is semantically connected with the preceding lines and at the same time enjoys a considerable degree of independence. The inner quality of any sentence to which the rank of epigram, in the generic sense of the term, can be attributed, is that the particularity of the event is replaced by a timeless non-particularity.1

Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care oi themselves,


Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it. Emerson

A quotation is a repetition of a phrase or statement from a book, speech and the like used by way of authority, illustration, proof or as a basis for further speculation on the matter in hand.

By repeating a passage in a new environment, we attach to the utterance an importance it might not have had in the context whence it was taken. Moreover, we give it the status, temporary though it may be, of a stable language unit. What is quoted must be worth quoting, since a quotation will inevitably acquire some degree of generalization. If repeated frequently, it may be recognized as an epigram, if, of course, it has at least some of the linguistic properties of the latter.

Quotations are usually marked off in the text by inverted commas (" "), dashes (), italics or other graphical means.

They are mostly used accompanied by a reference to the author of the quotation, unless he is well known to the reader or audience. The reference is made either in the text or in a foot-note and assumes various forms, as, for instance:

"as (so and so) has it"; "(So and so) once said that"...; "Here we quote (so and so)" or in the manner the reference to Emerson has been made in the epigraph to this chapter.

A quotation is the exact reproduction of an actual utterance made by a certain author. The work containing the utterance quoted must have been published or at least spoken in public; for quotations are echoes of somebody else's words.

Utterances, when quoted, undergo a peculiar and subtle change. They are rank-and-file members of the text they belong to, merging with other sentences in this text in the most natural and organic wayf bearing some part of the general sense the text as a whole embodies; yet, when they are quoted,, their significance is heightened and they become different from other parts of the text. Once quoted, they are no longer rank-and-file units. If they are used to back up the idea expressed in the new text, they become "parent sentences" with the corresponding authority and respect and acquire a symbolizing function; in short, they not infrequently become epigrams, for example, Hamlet's "To be or not to be!" X

A quotation is always4 set against the other sentences in the text by its greater volume of sense and significance. This singles it out, particularly if it is frequently repeated", as any utterance worth committing to memory generally is. The use of quotationsTpresupposes a good knowledge of the past experience of the nation, its literature and culture.1 The stylistic value of a quotation lies mainly in the fact that it comprises two meanings: the primary meaning, the one which it has in its original surroundings, and the applicative meaning, i.e. the one which it acquires in the new context.

1 A quotation from Byron's "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" will be apt as a comment here: "With just enough of learning to misquote."

Quotations, unlike epigrams, need not necessarily be short. A whole paragraph or a long passage may be quoted if it suits the purpose. It is to be noted, however, that sometimes in spite of the fact that the exact wording is used, a quotation in a new environment may assume a new shade of meaning, a shade necessary or sought by the quoter, but not intended by the writer of the original work.

Here we give a few examples of the use of quotations.

"Socrates said, our only knowledge was

"To know that nothing could be known" a pleasant

Science enough, which levels to an ass

Each man of Wisdom, future, past or present.

Newton (that proverb of the mind) alas!

Declared with all his grand discoveries recent

That he himself felt only "like a youth

Picking up shells by the great oceanTruth." (Byron)

"Ecclesiastes said, "that all is vanity"* Most modern preachers say the same, or show it

By their examples of the Christianity..," (Byron)

Quotations are used as a stylistic device, as is seen from these exam-j pies, with the aim of expanding the meaning of the sentence quoted and setting two meanings one against the other, thus modifying the original meaning. In this quality they are used mostly in the belles-lettres style. Quotations used in other styles of speech allow no modifications of meaning, unless actual distortion of form and meaning is the aim of the quoter.

Quotations are also used in epigraphs. The quotation in this case possesses great associative power and calls forth much connotative meaning,


An allusion is an indirect reference, by word or phrase, to a historical, literary, mythological, biblical fact or to "a fact of'everyday life made in the course of speaking or writing. The use of allusion presupposes knowledge of the fact, thing or person alluded to on the part of the reader or listener. As a rule no indication of the source is given. This is one of the notable differences between quotation and allusion. Another difference is of a structural nature: a quotation must repeat the exact wording of the original even though the meaning may be modified by the new context; an allusion is only a mention of a word or phrase which may be regarded as the key-word of the utterance. An allusion has certain important semantic peculiarities, in that the meaning of the word (the allusion) should be regarded as a form for the new meaning. In other words, the primary meaning of the word or phrase which is assumed to be known (i.e. the allusion) serves as a vessel into which new meaning is poured. So here there is also a kind of interplay between two meanings.

Here is a passage in which an allusion is made to the coachman, Old Mr. Weller, the father of Dickens's famous character, Sam Weller, In this case the nominal meaning is broadened into a generalized concept:

"Where is the road now, and its merry incidents of life!., old honest, pimple-nosed coachmen? I wonder where are they, those good fellows? Is old Welter alive or dead?" (Thackeray)

The volume of meaning in this allusion goes beyond the actual knowledge of the character's traits. Even the phrases about the road and the coachmen bear indirect reference to Dickens's "Pickwick Papers."

Here is another instance of allusion which requires a good knowledge of mythology, history and geography if it is to be completely understood.

"Shakespeare talks of the herald Mercury

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill', And some such visions cross'd her majesty

While her young herald knelt before her still. 'Tis very true the hill seem'd rather high,

For a lieutenant to climb up; but skill Smoothed even the Simplon's steep, and by God's blessing With youth and health all kisses are heaven-kissing."


Mercury, Jupiter's messenger, is referred to here because Don Juan brings a dispatch to Catherine II of Russia and is therefore her majesty's herald. But the phrase "...skill smooth'd even the Simplon's steep..." will be quite incomprehensible to those readers who do not know that Napoleon built a carriage road near the village of Simplon in the pass 6590 feet over the Alps and founded a hospice at the summit. Then the words 'Simplon's steep' become charged with significance and implications which now need no further comment.

Allusions are based on the accumulated experience and the knowledge of the writer who presupposes a similar experience and knowledge in the reader. But the knowledge stored in our minds is called forth by an allusion in a peculiar rfianner. ^All kinds of associations we may not yet have realized cluster round the facts alluded to. Illustrative in this respect is the quotation-allusion made in Somerset Maugham's novel "The Painted Veil". The last words uttered by the dying man are "The dog it was that died." These are the concluding lines of Goldsmith's "Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." Unless the reader knows the Elegy, he will not understand the implication embodied in this quotation. Consequently, the quotation here becorpes an allusion which runs through the whole plot of the novel. Moreover, the psychological tuning of the novel can be deciphered only by drawing a parallel between the poem and the plot of the novel.

The main character is dying, having failed to revenge himself upon his unfaithful wife. He was punished by death for having plotted evil. This is the inference to be drawn from the allusion.

The following passage from Dickens's "Hard Times" will serve to prove how remote may be the associations called up by an allusion,

"No little Grandgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt, or with that yet

more famous cow that swallowed Tom Thumb; it had never heard of those celebrities."

The meaning that can be derived from the two allusions, one to the nursery rhyme "The House that Jack built" and the other to the old tale "The History of Tom Thumb" is the following:

No one was permitted to teach the little Grandgrind children the lively, vivid nursery rhymes and tales that every English child knows by heart. They were subjected to nothing but dry abstract drilling. The word cow in the two allusions becomes impregnated with concrete meaning set against the abstract meaning of cow-in-a-field, or cow-in-general. To put it into the terms of theoretical linguistics, cow-in-a-fie Id refers to the nominating rather than to the signifying aspect of the word.

Allusions and quotations may be termed nonce-set-expressions because they are used only for the occasion.

Allusion, as has been pointed out, needs no indication of the source. It is assumed to be known. Therefore most allusions are made to facts with which the general reader should be familiar. However, allusions are sometimes made to things and facts wrhich need commentary before they are understood.

Allusions are used in different styles, but their function is everywhere the same. The deciphering of an allusion, however, is not always easy. In newspaper headlines allusions may be decoded at first glance, as, for instance;

"'Pie in the sky' for Railmen" *

Most people in the USA and Britain know the refrain of the workers' song: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

The use of part of the sentence-refrain implies that the railmen had been given many promises but nothing at the present moment. Linguistically the allusion 'pie in the sky' assumes a new meaning, viz. nothing but promises. Through frequency of repetition it may enter into the word-stock of the English language as a figurative synonyms

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