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Established in 1974

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Proverbs

Want to speak like a true Brit? Then learn our proverbs. We Brits love to use proverbs, as many as we can get our hands on usually. But, to the uninitiated learner of English, phrases such as ‘a leopard never changes its spots’, ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and ‘forewarned is forearmed’ can be confusing.

The prominent researcher into proverbs and their origins, Wolfganag Mieder, describes proverbs as ‘a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorisable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.’

What that means is a proverb is used to illustrate some traditionally held truth in a way that’s short and easy to remember. They can be metaphorical, which, in simple terms compares two things without using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. An example is ‘My father is a rock’, which compares the father to the solid, unmoving nature of a rock. This means he can be relied on to be steady and dependable in times of need. See more about metaphors here.

And proverbs are usually alliterative too. This means that a particular sound is repeated, such as in the phrase ‘make a mountain out of a molehill’, where the ‘m’ sound is repeated three times. This helps with memorising proverbs. If you want to know more about alliteration, with examples, see here.

You must have some you use in your own language, as they seem to be a common way of illustrating a point. Can you think of any?

Good and Never

Interestingly, according to The Phrase Finder, the two most popular words in English proverbs are ‘good’ and ‘never’. This leads to the conclusion that those who coined the proverbs were virtuous (good) and negative (never). I’m not so sure about that, but there do seem to be a lot of proverbs that warn against something, such as ‘a leopard never changes its spots’, ‘never put off until tomorrow what you can do today’, and ‘never let the sun go down on an argument’. And, at the time when most proverbs were written, religion was an important part of most people’s lives, leading to lots of proverbs including the word ‘good’.

How we Use Them

What you’ll often find when English people use proverbs is that they only use the start, like in this exchange:

It’d be really nice to wear saris while we are in India, what do you think?’

‘When in Rome…’ (This refers to the proverb ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’)

Or they simply refer to the proverb without actually saying the whole thing, as in this example:

‘I knew he was a cheat, I should have trusted my feelings.’

‘Well, you know what they say about leopards.’ (This refers to the proverb ‘A leopard never changes it’s spots.’)

You will hear proverbs used like this all the time, so it’s really useful to know at least some of them. To get started Phrasemix lists what they think are the 50 most used proverbs and their meanings.

Manythings.org is a great website for learning more about proverbs. It features a comprehensive list of commonly used proverbs in alphabetical order, plus lots of ways to learn how to use them, including crosswords and quizzes.

So, if you want to impress, use proverbs. They show you’ve really taken the time to learn the language that’s spoken by the people.

If you want to know more about proverbs see here .

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Susan Metcalfe - head of Business Training - discusses business, training and work issues. Come and join in the conversation or just enjoy the read!