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A Proverb-palooza for the (Recent) Ages

When you talk about proverbs, it’s hard not to add the adjective old: we tend to think of proverbs as remnants of the bygone days of yore, not the present days of non-yore.

But like so much "common sense" about language, the notion of proverbs as only being ultra-old is a big ol’ load of hooey. The wonderful new reference book The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (DMP) — edited by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro — demonstrates just how proverb-prolific the recent past has been, as it documents proverbs from 1900 on. Much like Shapiro’s astounding Yale Book of Quotations, this book exposes misattributed quotations and sheds light on rich lexical history. This book is a treasure.

Like the Oxford English Dictionary — and other great word books such as the Dictionary of American Regional English and Green’s Dictionary of Slang — this is a historical dictionary, collecting multiple usage examples, with an emphasis on the proverb’s origin. It turns out modern proverbs arise from every conceivable source: movies, TV shows, songs, senate committees, newspaper articles, commercials, and parts unknown.  As with the OED, the first use is often just the first known use, so surely some proverbs will be proven to pre-date 1900 in the future. (FYI, you can help the Modern Proverbs crew antedate and document proverbs at

Reading DMP is a weirdly personal experience, bringing to mind friends, moments, and entertainment I love. For example, summer-camp director Jack Anthony is the first person I ever heard say a variation of "Keep your eye on the donut and not the hole." I thought it was a Jack-ism, but it’s not. I also thought "If I were any more open-minded, my brains would fall out," was a creation of Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but variations have been around since at least 1960, when educator William Henry Burton wrote, "No one wants to be so open-minded that his brains fall out, but in far worse shape is he who cannot open his mind at all." People have been saying "Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you" since 1970 — long before a variation appeared in The Big Lebowski, my favorite film. Even my childhood felt represented, as I learned "The one who smelt it dealt it." is as old as 1971: one year older than me. I imagine every reader will have their memories similarly jogged and amended.

As with all elements of language, proverbs are all about variation. For every common saying like "Too many cooks spoil the broth," there’s a lesser known cousin such as "Too many rats never dig a good hole." Some proverbs have a tangled history, such as the one I know best as "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." That one is first found in the seventies, along with later variations that change bicycle to net, to make fella-needing sound less absurd and more restrictive. Then there are versions that reverse men and women, making men seem better off alone. The oldest variations, interestingly, were more traditionally romantic, like "A man without a woman is like a fish without a tail" or "a ship without a sail" — both found in 1909.  In the fifties, the proverb took a blasphemous bent as "A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle." The editors do a terrific job of presenting the facts on such proverbs plainly while demonstrating the complexity (and creativity) of each saying’s family tree.

A recurring topic — and an explanation for many variations — is the anti-proverb. Anti-proverbs include "The rich get richer and the poor get children," which distorts "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Proverb-distorting seems to be an old and ever-present impulse, and in some cases it’s difficult to be sure what’s the proverb and what’s the anti-proverb, since both appear around the same time. If you have one of those friends who is always posting obnoxious self-help platitudes to Facebook, you might be cheered to know that cliché-mutating is just as popular as cliché-spreading. We all have something in common with joke-makers like comedy writer Damian Fahey, who recently wrote "When life hands you lemons, you probably won't notice because you'll be too busy staring at your phone."

Twisting an existing proverb is probably your best path to making your own, but the second best method would be to rhyme. Almost every page of DMP has some type of rhyming saw. I was familiar with some, such as "You snooze, you lose." and "If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime." Others were brand new to me, such as "Rename it and claim it," "Drive for show, putt for dough," "Sisters before misters," "Your ego is not your amigo," and the somewhat clunky "If you don’t speculate, you can’t accumulate." Alas, I didn’t find a bit of advice I once heard from a maintenance worker at a nursing home: "Medical waste. It’s not good to taste."

As a connoisseur of fun reference books, I feel qualified and obligated to say this book is wonderful and you need it. Buy it for yourself or slyly get it for a language-loving friend whose library you can raid. This book will even make you feel better about humanity, I think. "Only God can make a tree" (which people have been saying since Joyce Kilmer wrote that in a 1913 poem) but folks like us can make a forest-full of sayings. 

For more on the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, see Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer's column in Sunday's Boston Globe.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.