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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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5. “Good Old Yankee Wisdom” Proverbs and the Worldview of New England 143


It is a commonplace by now that proverbs are cultural signs for recurrent social situations. They are employed as verbal strategies to assure meaningful commu- nication, albeit in a metaphorical and indirect fashion (Burke 1941). The wisdom contained in these pithy and formulaic utterances is based on observations and experiences that are believed to be of a general enough nature that they merit to be couched into memorable and repeatable statements. Over time these sentences gain general currency among people, from ethnic, professional, or social groups on to regions, countries, and continents. Some traditional proverbs have reached people throughout the world by means of loan translations and the powerful modern mass media, indicating that at least some proverbs like “Time f lies”, “One hand washes the other” or “Big fish eat little fish” express truths that are universally recognized (Taylor 1931, Röhrich and Mieder 1977). But there are, of course, also countless proverbs that have not reached such broad geographic distribution. In fact, many proverbs have remained confined to nationally and linguistically defined areas. In a large country like the United States, one might indeed speak of proverbs that pertain primarily to certain minorities or regions. Nevertheless, there is bound to be much overlap, and it is an involved task to find those proverbs that “belong” to a certain group or area. Above all, scholars need be extremely careful in drawing generalized conclusions about the national or ethnic character of a people by simply amassing their proverbs. And yet,...

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