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.


From the Latin, "word"

Examples and Observations

  • "[Proverbs are] brief, memorable, and intuitively convincing formulations of socially sanctioned advice."
  • "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
  • "Proverbs are strategies for dealing with situations. Another name for strategies might be attitudes."
  • 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)."
  • 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."
  • 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."
  • 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.



Also Known As

Adage, maxim, sententia


Paul Hernadi, "The Tropical Landscape of Proverbia." Style, Spring 1999

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 1963

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Stefan Kanfer, "Proverbs or Aphorisms?" Time, July 11, 1983

Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2004

Frank Sullivan, "A Watched Proverb Butters No Parsnips." The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down. Little, Brown, 1953

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "proverb." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). proverb. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "proverb." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).