Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An English proverb.


A proverb is a short, pithy statement of a general truth, one that condenses common experience into memorable form. Or, as defined by Miguel de Cervantes, "a short sentence based on long experience." Adjective: proverbial.

Many proverbs rely on antithesis: "Out of sight, out of mind"; "Penny wise, pound foolish"; "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

In classical rhetoric, the amplification of a proverb was one of the exercises known as the progymnasmata.

 The study of proverbs is called paremiology.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "word"

Examples and Observations

  • "[Proverbs are] brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice."
    (Paul Hernadi, "The Tropical Landscape of Proverbia." Style, Spring 1999)
  • "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 1963)
  • "It's not the thing you fling; it's the fling itself."
    (Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure)
  • "Here's the rule for bargains: 'Do other men, for they would do you.' That's the true business precept. All others are counterfeits."
    (Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit)
  • "Time heals all wounds."
    (ancient proverb)
  • Time wounds all heels."
    (Jane Ace)
  • "Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold?"
    (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982)
  • "A proverb is a statement we enthusiastically embrace when we are unwilling to examine the particulars in a general situation."
    (Sydney J. Harris)
  • "Patch grief with proverbs."
    (William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)
  • "Work smart, not hard. That's my philosophy, boss."
    (Dr. Gregory House, House, M.D.)
  • "Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. Another name for strategies might be attitudes."
    (Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form)
  • Cat Proverbs
    - There's more than one way to skin a cat.
    - When the cat's away, the mice will play.
    - Curiosity killed the cat.
  • Dog Proverbs
    - Every dog has his day.
    - If you lie down with dogs, you'll get up with fleas.
    - Let sleeping dogs lie.
    - You can't teach an old dog new tricks.
  • Bird Proverbs
    - Birds of a feather flock together.
    - It's the early bird that catches the worm.
    - A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • Chicken Proverbs
    - The chickens have come home to roost.
    - Don't count your chickens before they are hatched.
    - Don't let the fox guard the hen house.
  • Pop Cultural Proverbs
    "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)."
    (Ben Zimmer, "The Golden Age of Proverbs." The Boston Globe, May 20, 2012)
  • Proverbs and Aphorisms
    "The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general. A proverb is anonymous human history compressed to the size of a seed."
    (Stefan Kanfer, "Proverbs or Aphorisms?" Time, July 11, 1983)
  • Proverbs as Rhetorical Exercises
    - "[P]roverbs are either persuasive or expository. Examples of contemporary proverbs that persuade people to action are 'The squeaky wheel gets the grease'; 'Wake up and smell the roses'; and 'The early bird gets the worm.' Proverbs that dissuade people from doing things are 'If you drive, don't drink' and 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch.' Explanatory proverbs include 'Rolling stones gather no moss' and 'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.' Any of these proverbs can be amplified according to the ancient directions for doing so: begin by praising either the wisdom of the proverb or its author (if the author is known); paraphrase or explain the proverb's meaning; give proof of the proverb's truth or accuracy; give comparative and contrasting examples; supply testimony from another author; compose an epilogue."
    (Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2004)

    - "One of my favorite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people's minds."
    (Frank Zappa)
  • Frank Sullivan on the Lighter Side of Proverbs
    "Perhaps we should have a general reconditioning, or reupholstering, of proverbs. It could be done without too much trouble, and economically. New materials would not be needed. The old materials that Shakespeare and his great contemporary, Anon, used are still as good as new, and can't be bettered. You can't get stuff like that today. A simple rearrangement of a batch of the more prominent proverbs might do everybody a lot of good.

    "Something on this order: A man is known by the Russian he scratches. A bird in the bush is worth two on Nellie's hat. An apple a day is the evil thereof. He that keeps the doctor away will live to fight another day. A penny saved is a pound foolish. Beauty is only the spice of life. You see, they sound just as sensible as the originals, and if delivered by an adult in a solemn, minatory voice, will convince a youngster of his own unworthiness as thoroughly as if they made sense. A parsed proverb blows nobody good."
    (Frank Sullivan, "A Watched Proverb Butters No Parsnips." The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down. Little, Brown, 1953)


    Pronunciation: PRAHV-urb

    Also Known As: adage, maxim, sententia