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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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4. “It Pays to Proverbialize” Folk Wisdom in the Modern Mass Media 121

Extract

There have been and there continue to be those voices that cling to the claim that proverbs have little significance in modern technological societies. They argue that this traditional folk wisdom is in fact so much on the decline that the death of proverbs is imminent both in oral and written communication.i Such prophecies of gloom are definitely unfounded, as has been shown in numerous publications around the world. Proverbs do indeed continue to play an incredibly important role in human communication of all sorts, be it verbally in normal conversation, more deliberate socio-political rhetoric or in the written words of letters, diaries, reports, essays, and books of all types.ii Proverbs contain the wisdom and insights that humankind has gained through observation and experience, and as so-called “monumenta humana” iii they are the everyday and common-sense philosophy of all people. This has been the case for millennia, as the earliest extant proverb collections on Sumerian cuneiform tablets show. Some proverbs like “Big fish eat little fish” have been traced back to the earliest written records,iv but they might well have been in common use already in pre-literate times. But while some proverbs have an incredibly long history and broad geographical and linguistic distribution, there are also those proverbs which are of more recent origin with but a national or regional distribution. And although some proverbs do indeed disappear over time due to their archaic wording or their outdated message, there are also newer proverbs that fit modern times and...

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