From “Fall seven times, stand up eight” in Japan to “The night rinses what the day has soaped” in Switzerland, proverbs occur in nearly every culture. These short, pithy sayings usually express important truths. Now a leading proverb researcher is proving that one man’s private book collection may be an entire university’s treasure.
Wolfgang Mieder is one of the world’s foremost paroemiologists, or proverb researchers. The University of Vermont professor has spent 50 years pondering proverbs. Dan Ben-Amos is professor of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. He calls Mieder “one of the greatest proverb scholars of all times and the greatest of our generation.”
Not only does proverb-loving Mieder study this folklore genre, but he also collects sayings and writes books. His library includes stockpiles of foreign-language proverbs and writings on what proverbs are, their origins, and their function.
Mieder, a professor of German and folklore, has published 246 books and 569 articles on proverbs. He’s also presented more than 400 talks on the topic in 21 countries.
According to Mieder, proverbs may be short—usually “about seven words”—but many pack a big punch. Take this one: “A bad worker always blames the tools.” The saying points out the human tendency to not take responsibility for problems. It also illustrates a trait Meider admires of proverbs: the ability to “say things without offending . . . because we can always say it’s just a proverb.”
Mieder’s favorite proverb? “Different strokes for different folks.”
“It tells you to be reasonable, to realize that people have different priorities, different thoughts, different ideas,” Meider says. (He also says he always reminds his students that it doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want!)
Mieder also likes a proverb that Martin Luther King, Jr., used often, “Making a way out of no way.”
In 2018, the University of Vermont renovated its Billings Library—which was no longer serving as a library. School officials turned a large lounge back into a reading and study room. But the chamber was lacking something on the rich wood-paneled walls. As the proverb goes, “A room without books is like a body without soul.”
Then this fall, the University of Vermont placed Mieder’s entire proverb-related collection—all 9,000 volumes—in the newly refurbished library. “In my wildest dreams I never thought this would happen,” says Mieder. To him, those actions speak louder than words.
COMPLETE THE PROVERB:
Many proverbs are so well known that people can fill in the rest even if they hear only the first part. Can you complete these proverb starters?
Better late . . . ___ ___.
You snooze; . . . ___ ___.
Better safe . . . ___ ___.
Two wrongs . . . ___ ___ ___ ___.
Look before . . . ___ ___.
Too many cooks . . . ___ ___ ___.
These well-known proverbs come from the Bible. Can you think of others?
Whatever one sows, that he will also reap.
Can the leopard change its spots?
If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.
He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.
Pride comes before a fall.