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A golden age of proverbs

The modern era offers its own wise catchphrases

Martin Gee/Globe Staff

What comes to mind when you hear the word proverb? Probably a bit of hoary old advice like “Waste not, want not,” or “A stitch in time saves nine.” The definition of a proverb is a well-known saying, succinctly stating some nugget of truth. But it seems almost as definitional that proverbial sayings are as old as the hills, passed down from one generation to the next through wise mothers and inspirational embroidered pillows. When Ben Franklin compiled proverbs for “Poor Richard’s Almanac” more than two and a half centuries ago, he declared that they “contain the wisdom of many ages and nations.”

The idea of a collection of “modern proverbs” sounds, at first blush, like a contradiction in terms. But we may in fact be living in a proverbial golden age. The editors of “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs,” published this week by Yale University Press, make a strong case that new proverbs are being invented, circulated, and tweaked all the time. (Full disclosure: Along with several other participants in the American Dialect Society mailing list, I contributed some informal detective work to the project.)

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We owe many of our current proverbs to pop cultural sources, such as songs, movies, TV shows, and commercials. Sometimes these sources bring a preexisting saying to wider popularity, while other times they launch brand-new oral traditions. Think of “If you build it, they will come” (from the movie “Field of Dreams,” based on a W.P. Kinsella story) or “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” (from the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster).

One of the dictionary’s co-editors, Yale University law librarian Fred R. Shapiro, had previously mined this rich vein of popular culture when compiling “The Yale Book of Quotations,” which included a section of important modern proverbs. Here, Shapiro and his colleagues, University of Georgia English professor Charles Clay Doyle and University of Vermont folklorist Wolfgang Mieder, build on that work to present a huge number of proverbial bits of wisdom and advice from the 20th century onward, all meticulously documented.

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Most proverbs have no known originator. Even in those cases, though, the editors have tracked down the earliest known usage using the new tool of online databases. Hunting for proverbs—or, indeed, for other kinds of words and phrases—has become an enjoyable sport now that so many books, newspapers, and magazines have been scanned and digitized for easy searching.

One of the great pleasures in paging through “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” is seeing how successful sayings inspire clever or sarcastic elaborations, like graffiti writers scribbling responses to each other. The rueful expression “Life’s a bitch,” for example, dates back to 1940 in the writing of Langston Hughes. But by 1982, it had spawned the fatalistic “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

It’s also surprising how often the origins of sayings can be traced back decades before they hit the big time. Sure, we’re all familiar with Tammy Wynette’s country hit “Stand By Your Man,” but did you know that a leaflet from the Machinists Union gave that same advice to the wives of striking shipyard workers in 1919? And Yogi Berra may be celebrated as the coiner of the redundant formulation “The game’s not over till it’s over,” but baseball writers have been using it since at least 1921, before Yogi was even born. (The great Yankee catcher turns out to be a “quotation magnet”: like Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, he gets credited with any number of apocryphal sayings. Or as Berra put it, supposedly: “I never said most of the things I said.”)

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Conversely, many seemingly timeless proverbs are newer than you might imagine. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” despite what you may have heard, isn’t a translation of an old Latin saying, “Illegitimati non carborundum.” In fact, it dates only from 1952 and is attributed to General Joseph Stilwell; the Latin phrase is bogus. As for “It takes a village to raise a child,” many assume it’s an old African proverb, but there’s no evidence of it before Toni Morrison used it in 1981.

An impressive amount of legwork has gone into the search for earliest attestations, and yet this work can never be considered complete, as the ongoing digitization of old publications allows “first” dates to be pushed back ever further. A few proverbs in the dictionary may even predate the editors’ arbitrary 1900 cutoff for the modern era. The word sleuth Barry Popik has already noted that “The dinner bell is always in tune,” dated to 1938 in the book, shows up in 1881 with the nonstandard spelling, “De dinner-bell’s always in chune.” (It can join the list in the dictionary’s appendix of proverbs that the compilers thought were “modern” but turned out to have longer histories.)

Recognizing that the search for early information on proverbs is unending, the editors are launching a website (www.yalebooks.com/modernproverbs) where readers can contribute their own historical research and suggest additional proverbs that this edition might have missed. It’s a fitting acknowledgment that a single compendium of proverbial language will never provide a final, definitive statement. Proverbs represent a kind of dynamic folklore, resonating with the past but constantly reinvigorated in the present. As Mark Twain didn’t say, though we wish he did, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.
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