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«Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words»

Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media

Wolfgang Mieder

The ten chapters of «Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words» present a composite picture of the richness of proverbs as significant expressions of folk wisdom as is manifest from their appearance in art, culture, folklore, history, literature, and the mass media. The first chapter surveys the multifaceted aspects of paremiology (the study of proverbs), with the second chapter illustrating the paremiological work by the American folklorist Alan Dundes. The next two chapters look at the effective role that proverbs play in the mass media, where they are cited in their traditional wording or as innovative anti-proverbs. The fifth chapter discusses proverbs as expressions of the worldview of New England. This is followed by two chapters on the proverbial prowess of American presidents, to wit the proverbial style in the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams and a discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal proverb «Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.» The eighth chapter traces the tradition of proverb iconography from medieval woodcuts to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and on to modern caricatures, cartoons, and comic strips. The last two chapters deal with the origin and history of the proverbial expression «to tilt at windmills» as an allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the many proverbial utterances in Mozart’s letters. The book draws attention to the fact that proverbs as metaphorical signs continue to play an important role in oral and written communication. Proverbs as socalled monumenta humana are omnipresent in all facets of life, and while they are neither sacrosanct nor saccharine, they usually offer much common sense or wisdom based on recurrent experiences and observations.


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3. “Anti-Proverbs and Mass Communication” Interplay of Traditional and Innovative Folklore 87


The conscious manipulation of so-called fixed proverbs is absolutely nothing new. After all, proverbs are anything but sacrosanct pieces of universal wisdom. Instead they express generalized observations and experiences that are as varied as life itself, quickly leading to such contrasting proverbial claims as “Out of sight, out of mind” and “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” or “Look before your leap” and “He who hesitates is lost.” Proverbs may be true in certain contexts, while in others they may prove to be false. The truth value of each and every proverb very much depends on its use and function in particular situations. While the verbal duelling with traditional proverbs is a well established phenomenon throughout the world, people have also delighted in humorously or critically confronting individual proverbs and their claim to be absolute truths. This has been accom- plished both in oral and written communication by changing the original wording of proverbs or by adding a short comment to them, the result being a humorous, ironical or satirical twist on the fixed phrase and its apparent wisdom. Take, for example, the 18th-century American proverb “Money can’t (won’t) buy happiness” and its more modern extended parody “Money won’t buy happiness, but it will go a long way in helping you” and also the short variation “Money can’t buy you love”, popularized by the well-known song “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1964) by the Beatles (Mieder/Kingsbury/Harder 1992: 416; Mieder 1989: 210–211). Both of these textual alterations have become proverbial in...

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