Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with a passion. Learn More

Are proverbs dying?

I just have the impression that the old proverbs that I heard as a child aren’t heard as much today. People just don’t seem to use them much anymore. 

Of course this is hard to prove: maybe I am not mixing in the right circles; maybe there are newer proverbs that have replaced the older (proverbs change with each generation); maybe the media and/or gurus have picked up some and ignored others; maybe few make into print outside the tabloids and popular magazines. 

As far as the printed word goes, of those I have looked at some seem to peak around the 1930′s and then trail off, only to recover somewhat over the last decade or two. “Actions speak louder than words” was the commonest one I found, 3:1 against “Beggars can not be choosers”.

What is your impression? Is proverb use declining or just new ones becoming popular?

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They may not be used as much, but they are still used. It's just being around people at the right situation. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I know that my family still uses them from time to time. I'm sure that if you searched comment sections of various websites (major time consumption right there), you'd find them. As for new ones, I can't say. "Beggars cannot be choosers" I know I've heard in the last year or so.

I would say that depending on the group, there might be a lower chance of finding them. For example, writers might not use them because they've become cliche, so they _might_ avoid them in speech.

I wonder if there's any correlation between education level and the use of proverbs. Food for thought, I suppose.

Jasper Jul-01-2014

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Jayles - what an interesting observation. It's true: one doesn't hear them so much nowadays.
Perhaps those ready-made thoughts seem rather laboured and groan-worthy.

Skeeter Lewis Jul-02-2014

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One small thought: You'll find a lot more for "beggars can't be choosers" than "beggars can not be choosers".

Both seem quite popular on Facebook and Twitter - actual counts (front-page figure in brackets):

"beggars can't be choosers" - Facebook - 564 (19,900) Twitter - 499 (20,100)

"actions speak louder than words"- Facebook 541 (60,000) Twitter - 561 (61,900)

I imagine these are used more in spoken language than written, so it would be quite difficult to come up with a definitive answer. But Ngram shows an interesting difference in BrE and AmE - in BrE, "beggars can't be choosers"is at the same level as 1920, not much less than 75% of its peak level in in the late 30's and mid 40s. But in AmE, it's at it highest ever level. And according to Ngram, the use of "action speaks louder than words" has more than doubled since around 1970, in both AmE and BrE.

Warsaw Will Jul-02-2014

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Thank you.
I had been looking at "the 50 most important proverbs"

and wondering how they came up with the list.

Comparing the following in books:

two wrongs do not make,
mightier than the sword,
When in Rome,
The squeaky wheel,
the tough get going,
No man is an island,
Fortune favors the bold,
Birds of a feather flock

there are huge variations in frequency.
"No man is an island" shoots from nothing in 1940 to topmost today.
"the tough get going", When in Rome, and the squeaky wheel are rising strongly.
"Fortune favors the bold" seems hardly used by comparison.

I guess some proverbs are more suited to modern politically-correct,must-be-positive, results-oriented agendas; some 'proverbs' like "There's no such thing as a free lunch" are in
fact just modern day laissez-faire propaganda; and others like "A watched pot never boils" have no value to the media culture-shapers of today.

jayles the unwoven Jul-02-2014

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The sudden appearance of 'no man is an island' in 1940 is probably owing to the publication in that year of 'For Whom The Bell Tolls'.

Skeeter Lewis Jul-03-2014

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"A watched pot never boils" is still pretty active on Ngram, especially if you shorten it to "A watched pot". Milton Friedman may have used "There's no such thing as a free lunch" for the title of one of his books, but the expression goes back at least to 1943. It may have been used by the ultra-free-market right, but it had never occurred to me to have any particular political meaning before I read your comment, just common sense; a case of the devil having the best tunes, perhaps.

There are many proverbs where we often only use part of the proverb, for example "When in Rome" or "the last (or final) straw" (when did you last hear anyone mention the poor camel?). But you need to try the right short version (comments refer to Ngram) -

"Birds of a feather" shows double that of "Birds of a feather flock" - relatively stable
"When the going gets tough" shows ten times that of "the tough get going" - soaring
"Two wrongs" nearly double "Two wrongs don't make" - pretty stable
"two many cooks" more than double "two many cooks spoil" - long term gradual increase

"Every cloud has a silver lining is a case in point" - "silver lining" has by far replaced "every cloud" as the most popular form, and has been on the up since 1960 or so. The full proverb is relatively rare.

I'd be interested to know how they judge these to be "the fifty most important" proverbs. There are a couple I've never heard of, such as "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" and "Fortune favours the bold" (American, perhaps?)

Why no "last (or final) straw", I wonder, which according to Ngram has soared since 1960, as have "a book by its cover" (Ngram max 5 words) and "better safe than sorry". (Actually, these are in their next fifty).

In fact, when I try most of the ones I know, Ngram shows a healthy increase in use, so I think the answer to your original question is: not at all, they are "alive and kicking" (also on the up), but usually (where possible) in their abbreviated forms.

"When the going gets tough the tough get going" - this is pretty recent

Only three hits at Google Books for "when the going gets tough" before 1925, the earliest from 1883, but none with "the tough get going", so this seems to have started as the simple expression "when the going gets tough".

Especially associated with JFK and later Richard Nixon (he was apparently rather fond of the phrase), some of the earliest uses of the full proverb may have come from American football. A notice "prominently posted in the Michigan training room all during the week before the Minnesota game" in 1955 is the earliest example at Google Books, but coach Frank Leahy from the is quoted using it the year before, in the Charleston Daily Mail. Plenty of places attribute it to Joseph P Kennedy, JFK's father, and Wikipedia mentions another coach, Knute Rockne (1888-1931) - but nobody gives any dates for the these two.

It possibly had a precursor, though - "The tougher the going the tougher we get", from 1945.

Warsaw Will Jul-03-2014

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I have often wondered whether and what to teach non-native speakers in terms of proverbs. Always seems to me that one needs to understand them, but not to use them.
There's a nice one in Hungarian - "My snowboots are full of it" = I've had enough - which is the only one I use regularly, but not really necessary at all.

jayles Jul-03-2014

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I would have thought that "A watched kettle never boils" would have been more common than the "pot" version.
Perhaps "Watched pot never gets smoked" would be more appropriate today.


As for different versions with the same meaning; there is one that I find somewhat annoying and that is "The best defence is a good offence" which seems to be a favourite with Grid Iron commentators.
IMHO "Attack is the best means of defence", or "The best means of defence is attack" sound much more natural.

user106928 Jul-03-2014

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I had intended to respond a day or two ago, but I thought about this and I, in the last month or so, had said "don't count your chickens before they're hatched". I also had a conversation in May, I believe, on a forum with a Frenchman who adored the phrase "ignorance is bliss", and although not necessarily a proverb, though I think it counts somewhat, my brother said, this week and/or the last, "they can't tell the difference between their a**holes and a hole in the ground". I would also expect the old "an eye for an eye ([with its extension:] leaves the whole world blind)" to still be alive.

Jasper Jul-04-2014

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@jayles (the un-nothing this time) - Ngram links with asterisks don't work on PITE.

@HS - Re kettle, that would have been my hunch too, but it doesn't even show up in the Ngram British books selection.

Warsaw Will Jul-04-2014

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Interesting. Like Jayles I'd have guessed that proverb use has been in a steady, sad decline in the last few decades (extensive use of proverbs reminds me of my grandmother's baking), and I'd have been wrong.

You've got to be a bit careful as some proverbs/sayings come to prominence as titles of films, books, TV programmes, etc, and you'll probably get a spike then. E.g. "when the going gets tough" (Billy Ocean, mid-eighties) and "birds of a feather" (Sharon & Tracy, early nineties).

I'm surprised by how new some of these proverbs are. Look at "fat lady sings" on Ngram.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" - that one's been around for ages, but for some reason it seemed to skyrocket between 1980 and 2000. I wonder why.

tasman Jul-06-2014

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I don't think English proverbs or idioms are dying. I teach in Korea and always recommend that students watch TV shows and movies in order to study in their free time. A popular show for Korean ESL students is friends. There are a lot of idioms, proverbs, and slang used so they always need to look up the meanings on the internet. The other day I had students tell me it sure is raining "cats and dogs" which really surprised me. I asked where he heard it and he said he heard it on an episode of the show. To mix in some fun with their uses I use this site to teach some of the meanings. There are some great examples and questions to check the correct uses.

Rdavis202 Jul-31-2014

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@Rdavis202 - 'Cats and dogs' - that surprises me too. It's in lots of EFL course books, but I've always found it a bit artificial, and tell my students we're probably more likely to say something like 'It's bucketing down' (BrE) - although Ngram suggests I'm wrong.

Warsaw Will Aug-01-2014

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On a lighter note; if it were not for the phrase "raining cats and dogs" we would not have the glorious shaggy dog story about spare parts for Datsuns.


user106928 Aug-01-2014

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"It's /It was pouring" seems to outtick "raining cats and dogs".

jayles the unwoven Aug-01-2014

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