Proverbs As Insight

Don Quixote’s lower class sidekick Sancho Panza quoted proverbs to excess. Among the intellectuals I know that class association continues – proverbs may help lesser minds, but we elites “think for ourselves.” Proverbs are also associated with older beliefs and attitudes, and so are seen as more politically conservative, and less relevant in our new changed world. Since the world today changes faster, has become less politically conservative, and has more educated folks who aspire to look more intellectual, you might think that we use proverbs less today than we did in 1800.

On the other hand, you might think of proverbs as well-packaged nuggets of useful insight. As the world continues to grow by accumulating insight and innovation, not only do we collect more gadgets, formulas, and words, we should also be collecting more useful proverbs. From this perspective, we should expect people to use more proverbs today.

To get some data on this, I found some lists of famous proverbs, and used Google books ngram viewer to plot their usage in books since 1800:


ProverbUsage2Overall usage seems to have gone up, not down. But two considerations complicate this interpretation. One is that I started from lists of proverbs famous today, instead of proverbs famous in 1800. The other is that the typical book reader and author today may be more lower class than they were in 1800, with books catering more to their proverb-friendly tastes.

I hope someone can get better data on this. Even so, maybe we should tentatively expect future folk to talk and write more like ole Sancho Panza, with many more proverbs.

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    In politics proverbs are often used (and invented) to come across as more “down to Earth” and less privileged, perhaps also to appear more wise. Specifically when a politician has led a very privileged life they will resort to using proverbs in ridiculous numbers. Proverbs also help to dumb down an issue and/or mask the more nasty details. This seems to be common around the world.

  • Tyrrell_McAllister

    proverbs may help lessor minds, but we elites “think for ourselves.”

    What’s with the anti-landlord bias? 😉

  • Tyrrell_McAllister

    The proverbs “Better late than never” and “First come, first served” both saw spikes around the 1830s. This must have been a time of endemic tardiness.

    • That was in fact a time of increase in the use of clocks to schedule activities.

  • p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

    ‘Often a person uses some folk proverb to explain a behavioral event even though, on an earlier occasion, this same person used a directly contradictory folk proverb to explain the same type of event. For example, most of us have heard or said, “look before you leap.” Now there’s a useful, straightforward bit of behavioral advice—except that I vaguely remember admonishing on occasion, “he who hesitates is lost.” And “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is a pretty clear prediction of an emotional reaction to environmental events. But then what about “out of sight, out of mind”? And if “haste makes waste,” why do we sometimes hear that “time waits for no man”? How could the saying “two heads are better than one” not be true? Except that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” If I think “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”? And if “opposites attract,” why do “birds of a feather flock together”? I have counseled many students to “never to put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” But I hope my last advisee has never heard me say this, because I just told him, “cross that bridge when you come to it.”

    The enormous appeal of clichés like these is that, taken together as implicit “explanations” of behavior, they cannot be refuted. No matter what happens, one of these explanations will be cited to cover it. No wonder we all think we are such excellent judges of human behavior and personality. We have an explanation for anything and everything that happens. Folk wisdom is cowardly in the sense that it takes no risk that it might be refuted.’

    –Stanovich, _How to Think Straight About Psychology_

    • I don’t see all proverbs being equally matched by exactly opposite ones. For example “money talks” and “money isn’t everything” are not the same, but neither are they that contradictory.

      • > I don’t see all proverbs being equally matched by exactly opposite ones. For example “money talks

        “Money talks, but all it says is goodbye”. –_Dictionary of Proverbs_

        So, are we going to play the game where you try to think of as many proverbs as you can in the hopes I’ll be unable to match one of them, or are you going to accept that your intuition about proverbs being a useful source of information is not universally shared and it is reasonable to think that the equi-vocalness of proverbs makes them useful more as rhetoric & signaling & justification than actual empirically-backed advice?

      • The fact that some proverbs seem to conflict is not sufficient evidence to conclude that they are all worthless as info about how to live. So if you want to persuade me of that claim, yeah you’ll need more evidence. Of course proverbs can also be useful as rhetoric, and so we should also expect an accumulation of better ones for that purpose as well.

      • What could persuade you of this? For that matter, what evidence could there be that proverbs are systematically useful information about how to live?

      • It wouldn’t be simple, but it seems straightforward. Evidence on what behaviors and expectations are connoted by specific proverbs, weighted by proverb usage, could indicate the typical advice of proverbs. Evidence about what acts and expectations were useful could be compared to that.

      • That design seems equally consistent with proverbs-as-rhetoric-and-signaling: the proverb used reflects what choice was already reached & is being justified. If the choice turns out well, does that mean the proverb was helpful or that the person thought through to the right choice?

    • The tendency for proverbs to occur in mutually exclusive pairs may be compatible with regarding proverbs as sources of insight. Jon Elster has argued that proverbs capture many frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal patterns. On this view, a proverb provides the social scientist with a list of possible mechanisms for explaining social behavior, playing a role similar to the known cognitive biases (some of which, such as optimism vs. pessimism biases, or the fundamental attribution error vs extrinsic incentives bias, also occur in exclusive pairs). The mechanisms that these proverbs describe do not explain anything by themselves; to be successful, an explanation citing one of these possible mechanisms needs to be accompanied with evidence that the mechanism actually applies in the case at hand. See Elster, Explaining Social Behavior, Cambridge, 2007, chap. 2.

      • Yes, that makes sense.

      • There used to be an analogous (misguided) criticism of psychoanalysis: because of the concept of defensive process and reversal, it can explain anything.

      • Not just there either; Elster in his _Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions_, pg10 (available in Google Books & Libgen), covers a number of contradictory proverbs (at least 14 pairs at a quick count) and says “for any proverb one can find one that asserts the opposite”, citing as an earlier discussion Mieder’s 1993 _Proverbs are never out of Season_.

      • Thanks for those references!

      • Peter David Jones

        My simple minded take on this is that proverbs are course corrections. You need a “turn right” as well as a “turn left” because you don’t want to left however; likewise, you need a “don’t flow a dead horse” as well as a “try, try and try again”.

  • Nemo Semret

    A third consideration along the same lines: survival bias in the books? The older books that survive might be the ones that don’t use a lot of proverbs.

  • Randall McElroy

    I think you’re right on with the point that books are written for more audiences nowadays–the left tail of the intellect/education curve of today might read simpler books than we read, but the left tail in 1800 might not have read at all.

    Secondly, all of your examples are basically secular proverbs. I’d imagine without knowing for sure that the share of religious books has been declining since 1800. They have their own set of frequently appearing phrases.


    • Good that you tried to collect new data, but I’d be a lot more convinced if you showed Christian proverbs, instead of phrases.

  • bob

    Plot the historical average book content entropy!

  • Trimegistus

    I’d disagree that elites don’t use proverbs. They just use different sources for their proverbs. For every traditional Christian quoting the Gospel of St. Matthew about the lilies of the field, you have some self-declared secular intellectual cluttering up Facebook with quotes from Neil DeGrasse Tyson about how dumb religion is.

  • Mercher

    Here’s a link to Thomas Preston’s “Dictionary of English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases
    With a Copious Index of Principal Words” on Project Gutenberg, which I think was first published in 1881:

    A lot of things listed there just don’t seem to appear in the Google Ngram corpus at all, but it’s pretty easy to find proverbs that get less popular:

    • Good work. I guess we’ll need a more global analysis to see any overall change in proverb usage.

  • Thomas_L_Holaday

    This book of English proverbs, published in 1678, is Ex Libris Stephen Jay Gould:

  • arch1

    The fact that “no man is an island” starts its drastic rise before the 1940 publication of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” appears to substantiate the ugly rumor that Hemingway was a thiotimoline addict. (The boring alternative being that the ngram grapher used a 1-2 yr rolling avg:-)

  • Proverbs express far-mode insights in a near-mode idiom. I would consequently expect greater prevalence in oral cultures. Educated folk tend to be more comfortable with a consistent far-mode idiom, which is higher status. Not “look before you leap”; rather, “avoid being impulsive.”

  • efalken

    neat post yesterday in defense of cliches

    I think the wisdom of aphorisms is profound. ‘Moderation in all things’, ‘know thyself’, the Golden Rule, and a couple hundred others take you pretty far, good little axioms to have buried in one’s right brain via repetition.