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Conflicting Proverbs

  • January 24, 2011
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Proverbs and sayings are nuggets of truth wrapped up in pithy word packages. As brief as two words, often centuries old, these maxims express wisdom in simple ways that transcend time, language, and culture. As Lord John Russell put it in Notes to Roger’s “Italy”, “A proverb is one man’s wit and all men’s wisdom.”

These short sayings often convey a cautionary message or a moralizing one. They originate as an oral tradition, but through repetition become part of the language. Every culture and country has its own set of maxims, and often the meaning is unfamiliar to those who are not members. Learning about proverbs broadens your understanding of cultures.

These brief and witty sayings eventually become part of the common vernacular, although the original meaning can be lost over time as well as across cultural divides. With time, these simple truisms gain in credence. Many of our English proverbs come from the Bible, Confucius, Aesop and even Shakespeare. Others come from anonymous or unknown sources.

A peculiar quality of many familiar adages is their tendency to be contradictory. Although they are meant to be accepted as universal truths, many of these axioms conflict with one another. The following are some familiar conflicting English proverbial sayings.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “Out of sight is out of mind.” These two statements are in direct contradiction, yet experience tells us that each has an element of truth.

“Talk is cheap” but “Money talks.” These sayings appear to controvert each other, but that depends on the interpretation. Like most of these maxims, a closer examination is needed.

“Do as I say, not as I do” but “Actions speak louder than words.” Parenting experts would probably agree that the first of these oft-quoted phrases is a poor choice if moms and dads want their children to follow their example.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” but “One good turn deserves another.” So which is it to be? Well-intended actions aren’t always rewarded, as experience teaches us.

“The best things in life are free” but “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This is good consumer advice. The former statement is idealistic, but the latter is a needed dose of reality.

“A closed mouth catches no flies” but “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Sweet talk, then, is a recommended way to catch them, while silence keeps them away. But which advice should we heed? And who wants to catch flies anyway?

“The more, the merrier” but “Two’s company; three’s a crowd.” Apparently more is only merrier if it doesn’t exceed a pair.

“Opposites attract” but “Birds of a feather flock together.” I guess it depends on the plumage!

“March to the beat of your own drummer” but “Great minds think alike.” The former endorses nonconformity, but the latter admits that good ideas are seldom unique.

“You’re never too old to learn” but “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Now, which is it? Perhaps this adage only applies to the canine crowd, and not senior citizens.

“Clothes make the man” but “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Either exterior appearances matter or they don’t, but these familiar sayings disagree.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” but “Ignorance is bliss.” Perhaps it is in fact better to know nothing at all than to know just enough to get yourself in trouble!

“Many hands make light work” but “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Apparently the value of multiple contributing members depends on the task at hand.

“Curiosity killed the cat” but “Cats have nine lives.” I guess curiosity could kill the cat on the tenth try!

“Haste makes waste” but “He who hesitates is lost.” This kind of conflicting advice makes it hard to decide whether procrastination pays.

There is much more that could be written about proverbs and what makes them so memorable. To measure how useful they are, try counting the number of proverbs and sayings you use or hear in the course of one day. Find out for yourself if this ancient Greek saying is true: “The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.”

You are very welcome to share your favorite proverbs and sayings in the comments. Also you may want to read another useful article about how to make learning English a part of your life.

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