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A Stitch in Time . . . : PROVERBS ARE NEVER OUT OF SEASON, By Wolfgang Mieder (Oxford University Press: $25; 284 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Kenneth Turan | Turan is the Times' film critic

You know what they say about proverbs. Or maybe you don't. Maybe you even think not much needs to be said about those congealed bits of popular knowledge that have been passed down over the centuries. Well, if that's your attitude, you would be wrong.

That is the position of Wolfgang Mieder, professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont and a one-man gang where proverbs are concerned. Mieder has published more than 50 books on the topic and co-edited last year's mammoth "A Dictionary of American Proverbs."

Having done more for proverbs than anyone since Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard (more about them later), Mieder is still not finished with the subject. In this charming little book, he collects 10 essays on the subject, exploring common sense with an uncommonly light and diverting touch.

Though defining proverbs gets into the murky "I know it when I see it" area more commonly associated with pornography, many attempts have been made. Perhaps the best pocket definition is as "a short sentence of wisdom," though essayist Stefan Kanfer put it more elegantly when he wrote, "A proverb is anonymous human history compressed to the size of a seed."

Maybe it's the anonymity or the compression, but proverbs have not always been in favor. As far back as 1749 Lord Chesterfield instructed his son that "a man of fashion never has recourse to proverbs and vulgar aphorisms"; and as recently as 1931 sociologist William Abig wrote that "the proverb is a language form which has largely passed from usage in contemporary American culture."

Not to worry, says Mieder. Proverbs may take different forms nowadays, may show up on T-shirts or even as what he calls "anti-proverbs" (for instance "A woman's place is in the House . . . and in the Senate!") as opposed to more traditional venues, but their conciseness and punch makes them very much here to stay.

It is not as a philosopher of proverbs, however, that Mieder is most valuable, but rather as a language detective, tracking down familiar old sayings and revealing the appropriate history in all its intriguing complexity.

America's most famous purveyor of proverbs must be Benjamin Franklin, whose "Poor Richard's Almanack" was a home-grown bestseller without peer in the good old days. Yet it turns out that of the 1,044 proverbs that appeared under Poor Richard's name, Franklin thought up a very modest 5% at most.

Take for instance this hot number from the October, 1735, issue: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Its origins go as far back as the Latin tongue, and its first recorded reference in English came in a sporting volume of 1496 entitled "A Treatyse of Fysshynge Wyth an Angle."

Franklin, who never actually claimed credit for originating the thought, liked it so much he proposed putting it on an early American copper coin. Other writers have been less happy with the idea of rising early, and Mieder includes humorous attacks made on the whole notion by Mark Twain, James Thurber and George Ade, who noted, "Early to bed and early to rise and you won't meet many prominent people."

A rare case of being able to pinpoint exactly when a proverb began is the story of "A picture is worth a thousand words." Although the Russian novelist Turgenev was definitely in the neighborhood when he had one of the characters in "Fathers and Sons" say that "a picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound," the proverb as we know it today was coined by (who else but) an advertising writer named Fred R. Bernard. He published it in 1921 in a trade journal called "Printers' Ink."

Mieder is also expert at shedding light on some of the odder corners of proverb lore. There is a chilling chapter, for instance, on the Nazi Party's extensive use of proverbs to spread anti-Semitism. Not only did the German equivalent of "Bartlett's Quotations" come out in a "purified" edition with Jewish authors excluded, but the Nazis went so far as to pass off invented anti-Semitic taunts as the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

More benign is the history of proverbs in Vermont, a state that seems to be fairly bursting with aphorisms, many dealing with such down-home topics as cows, maple-sugaring, thriftiness and taciturnity. Among the more appealing Mieder has turned up: "Don't swallow the cow and worry about the tail," "Charity begins at home and usually stays there" and "You can't keep trouble from coming, but you don't have to give it a chair to sit in."

One of the more curious pleasures of "Proverbs Are Never Out of Season" is its discovery of these odd sayings that have in fact gone completely out of season. Next time you face a lull in a conversation, try spicing things up by saying, "Fresh pork and new wine kill a man before his time" or "You can never tell the depth of the well from the length of the handle on the pump." Wish I'd said that.

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