Pompous Proverbs: An Exercise in Brevity and Clarity

pompous proverbs
The ultimate entity of dried gramineous organism induces a rupture of the dorsal portion of the ship of the desert. (Daniel Van Beek/Getty Images)

Since ancient times, proverbs have served as compact ways of passing along traditional wisdom: Haste makes waste. Forgive and forget. Live and let live. Because they're short and simply worded, proverbs are usually easy to remember.

Aristotle treated proverbs as tools of reasoning in rhetoric, describing them as "residues of ancient philosophy . . ., saved thanks to their brevity and acuteness."

Viewed in this way, proverbs illustrate twin principles of effective writing: directness and conciseness.

In his book The Play of Words (Pocket Books, 1990), Richard Lederer highlights these virtues in reverse fashion by translating some popular sayings into mystifying circumlocutions. For instance, "Pride goes before a fall" becomes "Hubris antedates a gravity-impelled descent."

Let's see if you can put the pith back into a dozen of Lederer's ponderous and polysyllabic periphrastic proverbs.

Take a few minutes to decipher these 12 pompous proverbs. Your task, as Lederer says, is to "translate each sesquipedalian statement back into its original, nonorchidaceous form." When you're done, compare your answers with the original proverbs on page two.


  1. Similar sire, similar scion.
  2. Surveillance should precede saltation.
  3. Each canine possesses its period of preeminence.
  4. Adorn yourself with the comfortable pedal encasement.
  5. Male cadavers are incapable of yielding any testimony.
  6. Pulchritude possesses exclusively cutaneous profundity.
  1. It is futile to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers.
  2. Gramineous organisms are perpetually more verdant when located on an adjacent surface.
  3. It is fruitless to endure lacrimation over precipitately departed lacteal fluid.
  4. The temperature of the aqueous content of a metallic receptacle under unremitting surveillance does not attain its level of evaporation.
  1. The ultimate entity of dried gramineous organism induces a rupture of the dorsal portion of the ship of the desert.
  2. Although it is within the realm of possibility to escort equus caballus to a location providing a potable mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, one cannot coerce said mammal to imbibe.


To write memorably, eschew verbosity. Or put another way, keep it simple.

Here are the answers to the translation exercise on page one: Pompous Proverbs: Exercise in Brevity and Clarity.

  1. Like father, like son.
  2. Look before you leap.
  3. Every dog has its day.
  4. If the shoe fits, wear it.
  5. Dead men tell no tales.
  6. Beauty is only skin deep.
  7. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.
  8. The grass is always greener on the other side.
  9. Don't cry over spilled milk.
  10. A watched pot never boils.
  11. The straw that broke the camel's back.
  1. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.