The Worldview of Modern American Proverbs

by Wolfgang Mieder (Author)
©2020 Monographs XII, 256 Pages
Series: International Folkloristics, Volume 15


There was a time when the word "modern" would not have appeared in folklore scholarship in general and in proverb studies in particular. After all, folklorists and cultural historians were primarily interested in traditional materials with some consideration also being given to their innovative adaptations. While this interplay of tradition and innovation informed many studies that exemplified a certain constancy in change, little attention was paid to new or modern folklore items. But there has been a revolutionary change during the past few decades in that scholars have looked at the creation of new folklore. This change of emphasis has also influenced paremiographers (proverb collectors) and paremiologists (proverb scholars). In fact, the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) edited by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro has become solid proof that there is such a phenomenon as modern proverbs.
This is the first study of authentic modern American proverbs without including proverbs of British origin. The first of nine chapters discusses the origin, nature, and meaning of modern American proverbs based on about 1500 texts. The next large chapter contains a general overview of their forward-looking message that includes the American spirit of mobility with its emphasis toward a successful and exciting future. The third chapter treats proverbial emotions about modern life, with the fourth chapter considering the modern wisdom about age and aging. The next two chapters cover somatic aspects of these proverbs and also the preoccupation with time. This is followed by a discussion about pecuniary proverbs that reflect the attitudes of a capitalistic society. The next chapter shows that modern proverbs continue to include references to animals as has been the case with older proverbs. Finally, there is the ninth chapter about sexuality and scatology in modern proverbs, indicating that these topics play a considerable role in this modern wisdom. Such proverbs were often excluded form proverb collections. With the much greater openness about love, sex, and various taboos, proverbs have become much more open literally or figuratively about these matters that are an obsession of sorts throughout the society. Altogether these nine chapters with their many modern American proverbs present a fascinating metaphorical picture of a general of composite American worldview.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. “Think Outside the Box”: Origin, Nature, and Meaning of Modern American Proverbs
  • 2. “The Journey Is the Reward”: Worldview of Modern American Proverbs
  • 3. “Life Is Not a Spectator Sport”: Proverbial Emotions about Modern Life
  • 4. “Age Is Just a Number”: American Proverbial Wisdom about Age and Aging
  • 5. “No Body Is Perfect”: Somatic Aspects of Modern American Proverbs
  • 6. “Time Spent Wishing Is Time Wasted”: Temporal Worldview in Modern American Proverbs
  • 7. “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round”: The Pecuniary Worldview of Modern American Proverbs
  • 8. “Dogs Don’t Bark at Parked Cars”: Zoological Messages in Modern American Proverbs
  • 9. “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word”: Sexuality and Scatology in Modern American Proverbs
  • Index
  • Series index

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There was a time when the word “modern” would not have appeared in folklore scholarship. After all, folklorists and cultural historians were primarily interested in traditional materials with some consideration also being given to their innovative adaptations. While this interplay of tradition and innovation informed many studies that exemplified a certain constancy in change, little attention was paid to new or modern folklore items. But there has been a revolutionary change during the past few decades in that scholars have looked at the creation of new folklore that has become generally known during the past hundred years. This change in emphasis has also influenced paremiographers (proverb collectors) and paremiologists (proverb scholars) who after paying little attention to the origin of new proverbs have slowly but surely realized that not all proverbs were coined centuries ago. The idea that proverbs contain wisdom handed down from one generation to the next had led to such designations as “the old proverb” or “the ancient saw” leaving little room for the intriguing question whether people today couch their experiences and observations into generalized proverbs. In fact, a statement like “as the modern proverb says” ←vii | viii→would have been considered an oxymoron by most folklorists and paremiologists through the mid-twentieth century. Starting with the 1970s, this regrettable stagnation of proverb scholarship changed with American proverb scholars taking the lead in registering and studying hitherto not recorded Anglo-American proverbs that were coined after the year 1900—a somewhat arbitrarily chosen year to qualify as a modern proverb. Following some smaller studies of individual proverbs, Charles Clay Doyle (University of Georgia), Fred R. Shapiro (Yale University), and I from the University of Vermont took the lead and edited The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) after several years of concentrated work.

Of course, the work goes on, with Charles Doyle and I by now having published three supplements in Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship (2016, 2018, and 2020). The dictionary contains 1422 individual proverbs to which the supplements add 195 texts for a total of 1617 modern proverbs each with its earliest recorded reference and additional contextualized sources and explanatory comments. While there are some proverbs of British, Australian, and Canadian origin, the vast majority of them had their start in the United States. This fact makes these proverbs a cohesive data base of American proverbs to attempt some conclusions about the mentality, worldview, or folk ideas expressed in them. Using proverbs to extrapolate such information has its problems if not pitfalls, as can be seen from studies that have employed proverbs to describe national characters or stereotypes about ethnic groups, women, and others. Such investigations have often been based on a mixed bag of proverbs without any historical or contextual considerations, ignoring also frequency of their use today. American proverbs present a special problem in this regard, as a glance into the massive Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992) reveals that Stewart A. Kingsbury, Kelsie B. Harder, and I edited some years ago. While there are first recorded British and American dates for the more than 15,000 proverbs, it is clear that many of them are in fact translations of classical, Biblical, and medieval proverbs that became current in the English language. Immigrants also brought their proverbs to North America that have been accepted as loan translations. And, to be sure, there are hundreds of proverbs that had their start in Great ←viii | ix→Britain. Only painstaking labor could ascertain which proverbs were in fact coined in the United States. I have attempted this for at least some proverbs in my German book “Different Strokes for Different Folks. 1250 authentisch amerikanische Sprichwörter (2015). Be that as it may, worldview studies based on proverbs should definitely pay attention to the actual origin and frequent use of these texts in society.

The good fortune is that the proverbs listed in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs and its supplements represent a controlled albeit small data base of 1617 proverbs. Most of them are of proven American origin and were all coined in the twentieth century (a few in the twenty-first). Using the Internet and various other electronic and printed sources they have been shown to have a wide currency and frequency throughout the United States, usually in the larger society but at times also somewhat more restricted among certain folk groups such as African-Americans, professionals, students, and others. Some careful conclusions can be drawn from this rich corpus of modern American proverbs, but only by stressing that proverbs play only a small but not insignificant part in gaining an understanding of the multifaceted worldview of Americans. Included therein are aspects like being forward looking, regarding life as a journey, being competitive and successful, stressing good use of time, staying young and attractive, making money, and so on. These are generalizations, and not every American from this complex society will fit neatly into these concepts. Anthropologists, cultural historians, folklorists, linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and others can add to this composite picture of the American mentality, worldview, or folk ideas.

As the table of contents reveals, the book “Different Strokes for Different Folks”: The Worldview of Modern American Proverbs is comprised of nine independently written chapters of which five were previously published in Portugal, Russia, Spain, and the United States. They are units to themselves with their own bibliographies, making it possible to provide students with individual chapters that might be of particular interest to class. Since their places of publication are in journals and proceedings not easily accessible, they appear here together as a cohesive whole. Naturally a few repetitions do appear that will not lessen the value of the individually conceived chapters. It is with much ←ix | x→gratitude that I acknowledge the permission of presenting these studies in the present unified compilation.

The first chapter on “ ‘Think Outside the Box’: Origin, Nature, and Meaning of Modern American Proverbs” was written in 2012 at the time we published our Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. Its proverbial title summarizes the idea that proverb scholars have to make the leap into the modern age while at the same time presenting a detailed overview of the character, content, form, language, and structure of modern American proverbs. This is followed by the second chapter on “ ‘The Journey Is the Reward’: Worldview of Modern American Proverbs” that I finished as a general overview of their forward-looking message while working on this book. The proverbs discussed here show the American spirit of mobility with its emphasis toward a successful and exciting future.

Americans in general are an active and engaged lot. No wonder they came up with the new proverb that is included in the title of the third chapter on “ ‘Life is not a Spectator Sport’: Proverbial Emotions about Modern Life.” Sure, life has its challenges, but it is certainly worthwhile to face them. To do so, it is important to stay physically fit and young in spirit, pushing old age and aging aside as best as possible, as indicated in the fourth chapter on “ ‘Age Is Just a Number’: American Proverbial Wisdom about Age and Aging.” Staying young, beautiful, and in good shape has led to many proverbs dealing with physical appearance. And yet, “No Body Is Perfect’: Somatic Aspects of Modern American Proverbs,” as a new proverb states. There is pain in staying fit and being beautiful, as proverbs dealing with the body make perfectly clear.

The next two chapters deal with two preoccupations of most Americans, namely time and money. No wonder that the proverb “Time is money” is so popular! But it originated in Great Britain in 1719 and was subsequently popularized by Benjamin Franklin to such a degree that it has remained a favorite proverb ever since. Time is indeed of the essence in America, as the proverbs of the sixth chapter on “ ‘Time Spent Wishing Is Time Wasted’: Temporal Worldview in ←x | xi→Modern American Proverbs” explain in ever new proverbs. And there is the seventh chapter on “ ‘Money Makes the World Go ‘Round’: The Pecuniary Worldview of Modern American Proverbs” that is ample proof that Americans are members of a capitalistic society. Quite a few of these proverbs were coined on Wall Street and emphasize that America means business in all senses of that word.

The eighth chapter on “ ‘Dogs Don’t Bark at Parked Cars’: Zoological Messages in Modern American Proverbs” takes a look at whether new proverbs still base their metaphors on the rich world of animals as they have done for centuries. The answer is an emphatic yes, with domestic and wild animals serving as representatives of human behavior. In fact, surprising as it might seem, animal metaphors appear with much more frequency than references to technology. The computer and the internet don’t seem to be particularly productive in the creation of proverbs. But finally, then, there is the ninth chapter on “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word’: Sexuality and Scatology in Modern American Proverbs.” There are plenty of old proverbs that deal with these matters, but they were often not included in proverb collections because of their risqué or obscene language. With the much greater openness about love, sex, and various other taboos, proverbs have also become much more open literally or figuratively about these matters that are an obsession of sorts throughout the society. It will be interesting to find out how pervasive sexuality and scatology appear in modern proverbs of other cultures. While these nine chapters deal with the worldview expressed in modern American proverbs, it makes sense to assume that similar proverbs might circulate elsewhere as well. There is much more work to be done by proverb scholars worldwide and care must be taken not to fall into the trap of American exceptionalism. As already stated, the idea of a general American worldview can only be an approximation at best, with proverbs being part of a larger mosaic of folk ideas.

There is no doubt that the work contained in this book was only possible because of my long collaboration and deep friendship with Charles Clay Doyle. We have tilled the rich field of proverbs together for many years as untiring but joyful yokefellows in the service of ←xi | xii→American and international paremiology. It is therefore with heartfelt gratitude for his help and support and in recognition of his own accomplishments that I dedicate these ruminations on the worldview of modern American proverbs to my special friend.

Wolfgang Mieder
Spring 2020

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Chapter One

“Think Outside the Box”

Origin, Nature, and Meaning of Modern American Proverbs

Among modern proverb scholars it has become almost proverbial to call for the collection and study of proverbs that have been coined in more recent times. Far too long have paremiologists and paremiographers looked backwards at traditional proverbs without paying much attention to what modernity has contributed to the treasure trove of proverbial wisdom. Archer Taylor, the doyen of twentieth-century paremiology, lamented this unfortunate situation in an invaluable article on “The Study of Proverbs” (1939), calling for new collections that would be “made as complete as humanly possible, showing not only old proverbs and variations of old ones that are still current, but also new ones that have come into use, thus giving a complete cross-section of the proverbs of our time” (1939 [1975]: 62–63 [46], see also Taylor 1969). Following my revered mentor in this plea, I observed some fifty years later in my “Prolegomena to Prospective Paremiography” (1990b) that “paremiography cannot remain a science that looks primarily backwards and works only with texts of times gone by. Modern paremiographers can and should also assemble proverb collections that include the texts of the twentieth century [and beyond]” (1990b: 142, see also ←1 | 2→2000: 16). Such calls have not remained unheeded for English language proverbs, as my survey “ ‘New Proverbs Run Deep’: Prolegomena to a Dictionary of Modern Anglo-American Proverbs” (2009a, see also Sevilla Muñoz 2009) has shown.

This overview was a direct result of a contract for a new Dictionary of Modern Proverbs Published 2012) that my friends Charles Clay Doyle, Fred R. Shapiro, and I signed on September 21, 2007, with the prestigious Yale University Press of New Haven, Connecticut. Even before signing the contract, we had already more or less independently begun to assemble modern Anglo-American proverbs, that is, proverbs for which no references before the year 1900 can be found. Doyle had published about 200 such texts in his invaluable compilation “On ‘New’ Proverbs and the Conservativeness of Proverb Dictionaries” (1996 [2003], see also Doyle 2001 and 2007b), Shapiro had included a list of 104 “Modern Proverbs” in his invaluable The Yale Book of Quotations (2006: 526–530), and I had amassed about 300 texts that qualified as modern proverbs during the four decades of establishing my International Proverb Archives. After combining these three sets of modern proverbs, of which many quite expectedly proved to be duplicates, we examined six major and eighteen minor proverb collections published during the past few decades for possible modern proverbs, among them Nigel Rees, Sayings of the Century. The Stories Behind the Twentieth Century’s Quotable Sayings (1984), Bartlett Jere Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings (1989), Nigel Rees, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Phrase & Allusion (1991), Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie B. Harder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992), David Pickering, Alan Isaacs, and Elizabeth Martin, Brewer’s Dictionary of 20th-Century Phrase and Fable (1992), Anne Bertram and Richard Spears, NTC’s Dictionary of Proverbs and Clichés (1993), Linda and Roger Flavell, Dictionary of Proverbs and Their Origins (1993), Nigel Rees, Phrases & Sayings (1995), Anna T. Litovkina, A Proverb a Day Keeps Boredom Away (2000), Adrian Room, Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable (2000), David Pickering, Cassell’s Dictionary of Proverbs (2001), Gregory Titelman, Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (2000), Martin H. Manser, Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (2002), Wolfgang Mieder, English Proverbs (2003b), George B. Bryan and ←2 | 3→Wolfgang Mieder, A Dictionary of Anglo-American Proverbs & Proverbial Phrases Found in Literary Sources of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (2005), Stan Nussbaum, American Cultural Baggage[i.e., Proverbs]. How to Recognize and Deal with It (2005), Susan Ratcliffe, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, and Quotation (2006), Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-Like: 6,000 Curious and Everyday Phrases Explained (2006), and Jennifer Speake, The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2008). In addition, we looked through about seventy publications that in one way or another also cite some modern proverbs, as for example Richard Jente, “The American Proverb” (1931–1932), Frances M. Barbour, “Some Uncommon Sources of Proverbs” (1963), Kenneth L. Higbee and Richard J. Millard, “Visual Imagery and Familiarity Ratings for 203 Sayings” (1983), Jess Nierenberg, “Proverbs in Graffiti: Taunting Traditional Wisdom” (1983 [1994]), Robert R. Hoffman and Richard P. Honeck, “Proverbs, Pragmatics, and the Ecology of Abstract Categories” (1987), Wolfgang Mieder, American Proverbs: A Study of Texts and Contexts (1989a), Wolfgang Mieder, Proverbs Are Never Out of Season: Popular Wisdom in the Modern Ages (1993a), Christoph Chlosta and Peter Grzybek, “Empirical and Folkloristic Paremiology: Two to Quarrel or to Tango?” (1995), Kimberly Lau, “ ‘It’s about Time’: The Ten Proverbs Most Frequently Used in Newspapers and Their Relation to American Values” (1996 [2003]), Roumyana Petrova, “Language and Culture: One Step Further in the Search for Common Ground (A Study of Modern English Proverbs)” (1996), Sw. Anand Prahlad, African-American Proverbs in Context (1996), Stephen D. Winick, The Proverb Process: Intertextuality and Proverbial Innovation in Popular Culture (1998), Anna Tóthné Litovkina, “An Analysis of Popular American Proverbs [found in the Folklore Archive at UC Berkeley] and Their Use in Language Teaching” (1998), Paul Hernadi and Francis Steen, “The Tropical Landscape of Proverbia: A Crossdisciplinary Travelogue” (1999 [2003]), George B. Bryan, “An Unfinished List of Anglo-American Proverb Songs” (2001), Charles Clay Doyle, “Collections of Proverbs and Proverb Dictionaries: Some Historical Observations on What’s in Them and What’s not” (2007b). After pooling all of these references we eventually had the impressive database of not quite 700 modern Anglo-American proverbs (for more details see Mieder 2009a).

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For all these texts we undertook the laborious task to prove that they in fact were not older than the 1900 cut-off year. Many of our sources did not provide any dates of occurrences, and we consequently had to use various databases (Google, Google Books, Google News, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Newspaperarchive, America’s Historical Newspapers, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, LexisNexis Academic, JSTOR, etc.) to find the earliest citation possible (Chlosta and Ostermann 2002, Colson 2007, Kleinberger Günther 2006, Lauhakangas 2001, Rittersbacher and Mösch 2005, Umorova 2005, and Winick 2001). But not just that, for as I have said in my earlier description of this vexing and time-consuming task: “Texts alone no proverbs make, and as with all folklore genres, it takes currency and traditionality, usually also variants, […] to decide whether a text is in fact in more or less general use beyond being a mere one-day wonder!” (2009a: 257). In other words, we felt compelled to establish the proverbiality of each and every text, thus going far beyond all previous background material accumulated on these proverbs. But our work did not stop there, for we clearly were not satisfied with just about 700 modern proverbs! Many contenders to be included eventually had to be dropped because we were able to establish that they were already in use before 1900 (Mieder, Kingsbury, Harder 1992, Stevenson 1948, Wilson 1970), among them such surprises as the following (our dictionary includes a much longer appendix with additional texts):

Business before pleasure.

Buy low, sell high.

The camera cannot lie.

You are what you eat.

An elephant never forgets.

The future is already here.

Behind every great man there’s a great woman.

The second million (dollars) is always easier (than the first).


XII, 256
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XII, 256 pp.

Biographical notes

Wolfgang Mieder (Author)

Wolfgang Mieder is University Distinguished Professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont, where he served for thirty-one years as chairperson of the Department of German and Russian. He is an internationally acknowledged proverb scholar, the author of the two-volume International Bibliography of Paremiology and Phraseology (2009), and the founding editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship (since 1984). His numerous books and articles are concerned with cultural, folkloristic, historical, linguistic, literary, philological, social, and political topics. Among his more recent books are "Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words": Folk Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature, and Mass Media (2008), "Making a Way Out of No Way": Martin Luther King’s Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric (2010), "Behold the Proverbs of a People": Proverbial Wisdom in Culture, Literature, and Politics (2014), and "Right Makes Might": Proverbs and the American Worldview (2019).


Title: The Worldview of Modern American Proverbs
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