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Greek translation Greek dictionariesDr. Panos Karagiorgos (CV)
   Greek and English Proverbs - Introduction

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212 pages

English Introduction
Greek Introduction
Proverbs translated from English into Greek
Proverbs translated from Greek into English

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     The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.

Francis Bacon .

       1. History of proverbs

     Proverbs, together with fables, folktales, folksongs and riddles, are part of every spoken language. They have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, until they were recorded and became a folklore treasure for posterity.

       The earliest collections of proverbs can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt, about 2500 B.C. The Old Testament attributed some 900 proverbs to King Solomon of Israel (10th century B.C.).
The first person, however, to engage more systematically in the collation and classification of proverbs was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). According to the neo-Platonic philosopher Synesius (A.D.370-413), Aristotle considered proverbs a survival of an older wisdom: 'Proverbs are... elements of old philosophy which survived thanks to their brevity and dexterity.' [ 1 ]

       Aristotle in his Rhetoric gives the following definition:

     A proverb is a type of metaphor... If a man, for instance, introduces into his house something from which he expects to benefit, but afterwards finds himself injured instead, he is reminded of the Carpathian and the hares; for both have experienced the same misfortunes. [ 2 ]

     Aristotle is here referring to the case of an inhabitant of the island of Carpathos, who, in the hope of gain from it, introduced a brace of hares on to the island. The hares, however, multiplied so rapidly that they devoured all the crops on the island!

       Another ancient writer who indulged in proverbs was Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.), a philosopher and collaborator of Aristotle, who also wrote a work likewise called Rhetoric, but this has not survived.

       Diogenes Laertius, a historian of philosophy who lived during the 3rd century A.D., claims that Aristotle had written a work under the title Παροιμίαι (Proverbs), which, however, has also not survived. Demon, a historian of Attica and an important paroemiographer (writer of proverbs) in antiquity, is said to have written a treatise called On Proverbs consisting of 40 books, at the end of the 4th century.
During the Hellenistic period proverbs were used by rhetoricians to adorn their speeches, as is obvious in the works of Lucian and Libanius. Collections were made by Aristophanes of Byzantium, a famous scholar (257-180 B.C.), who compiled six books of proverbs (two in verse and four in prose) and undertook their correct recording and interpretation; he found them mainly in the texts of writers of comedy.

       Other collectors of proverbs were Didymus of Alexandria, a philologist who was born about the year 80 B.C., whose collection extended into thirteen books, and Lucius of Tarra, Crete, who compiled three volumes.

       Plutarch (c. A.D.45-125), the famous biographer and essayist, in addition to his many works, amongst which Parallel Lives is outstanding, made a collection of Αποφθέγματα λακωνικά (Laconic sayings) in which a number of proverbs appear.

       In Roman times, Zenobius, a Greek sophist who lived in Rome during the 2nd century A.D., composed a summary of the proverbs in the books of Lucius of Tarra and Didymus of Alexandria. The earliest edition of the proverbs of Zenobius and Didymus appeared in print in Florence in 1487 under the title Epitome proverbiorum Lucii Tarrhaei et Didymi Alexandrini secundum ordinem alphabeticum graece. Editions published by Aldus Manutius appeared in Venice in 1505, followed by editions in the Hague in 1535 and in Antwerp in 1612.
A much recent edition, Paroemiographi graeci, by T. Gaisdorf appeared in Oxford in 1836. It is believed that the work of Zenobius is based on the proverbs which appeared in the Corpus paroemiographorum graecorum. [ 3 ] Diogenianus of Heracleion, who also studied proverbs, lived at the same time as Zenobius. Both Plutarch and Gregory of Cyprus derived their material from the former.
During the Byzantine period the monk and scholar Maximus Planudis (1255-1305) recorded 275 proverbs; these proverbs were published by the German scholar E. Kurtz in Leipzig in 1886. [ 4 ]

       During the Middle Ages, the use of proverbs in sermons, in homilies, and in didactic works made them popular and widely known throughout Europe and led to their preservation in manuscripts. In early Middle English there are two presentations of gnomic material, the Proverbs of Alfred, dating from c.1150-80, in four versions, and later, the Proverbs of Hendyng. The ascription of proverbial wisdom to King Alfred is as legendary as that to King Solomon's Proverbs in the Old Testament. These proverbs are often composed in alliterative lines, rhymed couplets, and reflect on the nature of life and human destiny. The Proverbs of Hendyng is a shorter collection of about 300 lines, dating from the middle of the 13th century. Both collections concentrate on religious and moral precepts. [ 5 ]

       After the fall of Constantinople, Michael Apostolis, [ 6 ] a scholar who was born in that city in 1422, was forced to take refuge in Crete where, apart from teaching and copying various manuscripts, he collected many proverbs which he recorded in a manuscript that bears the title Ιωνία, ήτοι συλλογή ελληνικών παροιμιών (Ionia, a collection of Greek proverbs). This collection was completed by additions made by his son Arsenius, Bishop of Monemvasia. These proverbs have been published by R. Walz. [ 7 ]

       The spread of ancient Greek proverbs in various European countries is owed to the well-known Dutch humanist Erasmus (1467-1536). In his work Adagiorun collectanea, which was written in late Latin and was published in 1500, Erasmus translated about 3000 Greek and Roman proverbs. These proverbs were widely read by educated people of Europe in Latin, which was the international language of that time. Later they were translated into the vernacular European languages and were incorporated therein. [ 8 ] This explains the phenomenon of ancient Greek proverbs commonly found in many European languages. The ancient Greek proverb Μία χελιδών έαρ ου ποιεί, for instance, rendered in Latin is Una hirundo non efficit ver; in Italian, Una rondine non fa primavera; in French, Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps; in Spanish, Una golondrina no hace verano; in German, Eine Schwalbe macht keinen Sommer; in English, One swallow does not make a summer. Naturally, to such proverbs many others were gradually added, created by the people of each nation.

       In Erasmus's work Adagia (London,1550) we read:

       The first to dedicate a work on the collection of proverbs was Aristotle. After him came Chrysippos, Zenodotus, and Cleanthis. There are some collections attributed to Plutarch. Athenaeus mentions among the paroemiographers Clearchos of Soli and Aristides, and then Zenodotus, who collected the proverbs of Didymus and of Tarreus. In the comments on Demosthenes mention is made of the proverbs of Theophrastus. A certain Mychon is also mentioned as a paroemiographer, also a Daemon. There exists the collection of Diogenianus to which many were added by Hesychios and Suida, attributed by some to Tzetzis. [ 9 ]

       At about the same time the earliest English collection, Proverbs or adagies with newe additions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus by J. Taverner (London, 1539) appeared. This was followed by J. Hewood's Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the englishe tongue (London, 1546), T.Draxe's A treasure of ancient adagies (London, 1616), G.Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs (1640), and D.Fergusson's Scottish Proverbs (1641). [ 10 ]

       During the four-century Turkish occupation of Greece (1453-1821), when learning was restricted to the Greek centres of the Diaspora in various European cities (Venice, Paris, Vienna, Moscow), no book or important manuscript related to proverbs appeared in Greece, except for a manuscript collection made by the monk Parthenios Katzioulis in about the year 1715. He recorded more than 700 proverbs originating from Ioannina, Epirus, and the surrounding region. [ 11 ]

       About the year 1650 the Dutch scholar Levinus Warner, who served as a diplomat in Constantinople, gathered, through his association with the educated Greeks living there, more than 750 Modern Greek proverbs. These were edited by D.C.Hesseling, and appeared in the monumental, four-volume work on the proverbs of the Greek people, published by Politis in Athens in 1899-1902. [ 12 ]

       G.N.Politis (1852-1921) himself made an important contribution to the study of Greek proverbs; he was also the first person to introduce folklore studies into Greece at the end of the last century. Other well known Greek folklore scholars were Kyriakidis and Megas.

       In America, the name of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), inventor, scholar and politician, is closely linked to American proverbs. Over a period of 25 years (1733-58) he published the annual Poor Richard's Almanac, in which he included a number of old proverbs as well as many of his own. Two popular proverbs attributed to Franklin are: Three removals are as bad as a fire and A house without a woman and firelight is like a body without soule or sprite. [ 13 ]

       Of the contemporary foreign scholars who treated the Greek proverbs at great length mention should be made of the Swedish paroemiographer Reinhold Strömberg whose book on Greek proverbs has been published in three languages in Göteborg: in Swedish (Grekiska Ordsprök, 1949), in English (Greek Proverbs, 1954), and in German (Griechische Sprichwörter, 1961).

       During recent years significant contributions to Greek folklore studies and to proverbs in particular have been made by two eminent scholars, Demetrios Loukatos and Michael Meraklis.

            2. Origin and importance of proverbs

       Proverbs are short pithy statements of homely pieces of wisdom, philosophy, or advice which have passed into general use. They are often expressed in metaphor, rhyme or alliteration, and refer to some common human experience. These folk sayings are often satirical or mocking in intention. Almost ninety-five percent of Modern Greek proverbs are written in verse. Some of them are contradictory and, in order to better understand them, one should bear in mind that they express the outlook prevailing some centuries ago. Some proverbs present slight grammatical irregularities or are dialectal.

       The word παροιμία, paroemia (in Latin proverbium) is known from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon (lines 264-5), written in 458 B. C. Hesychios of Alexandria, the most important Greek lexicographer, who lived during the 5th century A.D., wrote: ''A proverb is a statement useful to life which is said along the road, i.e., a by-the-way saying; for oimos means road''. Commenting on this statement, Demetrios Loukatos, the distinguished Folklore Professor at the University of Ioannina, explains: 'The proverb was therefore something of an accompaniment or auxiliary element for the people, either in the course of their talking, or in the course of their lives.' [ 14 ]
Another theory about the etymology of the word paroemia is that it is made up of the preposition παρά (near, by) and the word οιμός (oimos), which in ancient Greek meant way, road (cf. προοίμιον, preamble). In antiquity there was a custom to engrave short, succinct slogans on the marble under the ερμές (hermes), statuettes of the god Hermes, protector of pedestrians. These statuettes were posted in central spots, crossroads and other central places of cities to guide strangers. Such slogans, and brief, wise statements, gradually became popular and passed from mouth to mouth as proverbs. [ 15 ]

       Proverbs contain keen observations of everyday life, constitute popular philosophy of life, and provide an insight into human behaviour and character. They survived thanks to their brevity, their rhyme and rhythm which delighted the ear and helped the memory.
Of the many definitions of the proverb offered it is worth citing here the one by the well-known paroemiographer Archer Taylor:

     A proverb is a terse didactic statement that is current in tradition or, as an epigram says, ''the wisdom of many and the wit of one''. It ordinarily suggests a course of action or passes a judgement on a situation. [ 16 ]

     Taylor goes on by illustrating his definition with examples:

     A proverb may be merely a statement of fact: Honesty is the best policy, All's well that ends well, or a metaphor, which one applies to the situation: Don't change horses when crossing a stream. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. In many proverbs, and characteristically in those dealing with medical or legal ideas or with the weather, the didactic element is a condensation of experience or a concisely formulated rule: Rain before seven, fine before eleven; Two words to a bargain; Silence means consent.

     A more exact and succinct definition was given by Demetrios Loukatos:

     A proverb is a short verse or prose sentence that expresses vividly and often allegorically a wise opinion, an ascertainment, an advice, and which is repeated in everyday conversation as an argument or example. [ 17 ]

     Proverbs are distinguished from proverbial expressions since the latter have no self-sufficiency and are not related to fables. The proverbial expressions have been pronounced by certain individuals in certain situations and since then they have been repeated and gradually have become popular.

     According to contemporary Greek scholars proverbs originated:

(a) from a fable or tale, as an extraction of a characteristic expression, i.e., Foxes, when they cannot reach the grapes, say they are not ripe (Aesop's fable);
(b) from an historical event: I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts (Virgil's Aeneid);
(c) from sayings of certain historical persons: Business tomorrow! (Archias, Spartan commander);
(d) from sayings in the Bible:If any would not work, neither should he eat (2 Thessalonians, iii, 10). [ 18 ]

     Closely related to proverbs are maxims or sayings, which differ from proper proverbs, although the borderline between proverbs and maxims is not clearly discernible. A pure proverb has a metaphorical meaning. It says one thing and it means another. There has been much discussion, and disagreement, among modern paroemiographers on the subject, but Aristotle had already clarified the point by stating laconically: 'Some of the proverbs are also maxims.' (Art of Rhetoric, 1395a 19).

The use of proverbs in literature

     Sporadic use of proverbs was made both by the two great poets of antiquity, Homer and Hesiod (8th century BC), and by the comedy writers, Aristophanes and Menander. The Fathers of the Church and the Byzantine writers used proverbs in their writings. John Chrysostome, Archbishop of Constantinople (398-404) called proverbs 'wise words' adding 'one should not hold in contempt popular proverbs, if they have something which is wise.' [ 19 ]

     The use of maxims and proverbs in literature is a long established scholarly feature. Impressive and thorough examinations have been done and dissertations have been written on authors of international reputation such as Aristophanes, Euripides, Dante, Chaucher, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rabelais and Goethe.[ 20 ] These authors, among their other literary devices, have employed maxims, proverbs, especially proverbs, proverbial expressions and proverbial comparisons either integrating them into their texts or alluding to them.

     In English literature Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340-1400), who is considered the father of English poetry, made use of many proverbs in his long poems. [ 21 ] In particular, the use of proverbs was at its height during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Elizabethan playwrights, John Lyly (c.1554-1606) [ 22 ] and Ben Jonson (1572-1637) [ 23 ] made abundant use of proverbs in their plays. Above all, the great dramatist, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), embellished his plays with proverbs. He used proverbs to form the titles of two of his comedies: All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. In his celebrated tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and particularly in Hamlet (Scene 5, Act I), he used a series of proverbs. [ 24 ] His contemporary, Michael Drayton (1563-1631), under the title 'To Proverbe' wrote a sonnet in dialogue form into the text of which he incorporated ten proverbs. [ 25 ]

     During the early nineteenth century, after the revival of interest in folklore, which was brought about by the Romantic Movement, two eminent novelists, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) [ 26 ] and Charles Dickens (1812-70), [ 27 ] incorporated a considerable number of proverbs into their many and popular novels. Proverbs can be found also in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865). Reflecting on folk culture, the more systematic study during the twentieth century shows renewed interest in the proverbs. Lawrence Durrell in his Bitter Lemons uses three Cypriot Greek proverbs. [ 28 ]

     In French literature François Villon (1431-63?) among his famous ballads included one under the title 'Ballade des Proverbes' consisting of 36 proverbs, the first stanza of which reads:

Tant gratte chèvre que mal gît,
Tant va le pot à l'eau qu'il brise,
Tant chauffe-on le fer qu'il rougit,
Tant le maille-on qu'il se débrise,
Tant vaut l'homme comme on le prise,
Tant s'élogne-il qu'il n'en souvient,
Tant mauvais est qu'on le déprise,
Tant crie-l'on Noël qu'il vient. [ 29 ]

     François Rabelais (1494-1553) wrote a chapter of proverbs in his Gargantua et Pantagruel (1532). Jean de la Fontaine (1621-95) also made use of proverbs in his works.

     In German literature the most systematic collection of proverbs was made by Egbert von Lüttich about the year 1023; proverbs, however, can be traced down as early as the ninth century in Hildebrandslied. The monk Notker Labeo, who lived during the eleventh century, made use of a number of moralistic proverbs. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, can be regarded as the heyday of German proverbs. Writers and orators, like Sebastian Brant, Hans Sachs and Martin Luther, made use of proverbs in their works. In the seventeenth century two names are outstanding: Angelus Silesius and the renowned medieval novelist Johann Grimmelshausen (1622-76). In 1529 three hundred of the most common proverbs collected by Johannes Agricola were published in Hagenau. Although proverbs lost a lot of their reputation in the Age of Enlightenment as a result of their overwhelmingly medieval origin, they were by no means neglected by classical authors such as Lessing, Schiller and Goethe. [ 30 ] In modern times, the most prominent literary figure who made use of proverbs in his works is Bertold Brecht.

      In Italian literature proverbs are found in addition to Dante's La Divina Comedia, completed shortly before the poet's death in 1321, also in Luigi Pulci's poem Il Morgante (1484). The poet Giuseppe Giusti (1809-1850) collected 3,000 proverbs, Racolta dei proverbi toscani (Florence, 1853) which were published posthumously. This collection was followed by Niccolò Tommaseo's Proverbi italiani (Milano, 1858). Stressing the importance of proverbs Tommaseo placed them after the Bible. In his words:

     Se tutti si potessero raccogliere e sotto certi capi ordinarei proverbi d'ogni popolo e d' ogni età, colle varianti di voci, d'immagini e di concetti, questo, dopo la Bibbia, sarebbe il libro più gravido di pensieri. [ 31 ]

     Many proverbs can be found in Giovanni Verga's Sicilian novels.
Proverbs and sayings of this kind hold a high place in Spanish language and literature. The refranes, adagios and proverbios are very popular in Cervantes' (1547-1616) masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605). When Sancho Panza began a tale, Don Quixote interrupted him saying 'Leave off your proverbs; go on with your story.' Sancho said 'All tales must begin in this way.' Numerous are the refranes in Lope de Vega's (1562-1635) La Dorotea (1634). Other eminent Spanish writers who made use of proverbs are Fernan Caballero (1796-1877), Benito Pérez Galdóz (1843-1920), who is regarded as the best novelist after Cervantes, Miguel Delibes (b. 1920) and Camilo José Cela (b.1916), Nobel Prize winner, 1989. The Spaniards take a warm pride in the numerous wise sayings that abound in their language. [ 32 ]

      In Modern Greek literature the presence of proverbs in the works of certain of the most eminent poets and prose writers is marked. The poet Costis Palamas (1851-1943), for instance, on the occasion of the publication of Politis' great collection of proverbs, recommended the study of proverbs and considered them a kind of poetry. 'Proverbs deserve to be analysed as linguistic monuments that one day will benefit the philosopher and the poet,' he stated. [ 33 ] Palamas, in a sonnet entitled 'The Fathers', praising Politis' contribution to the study of proverbs, wrote:

     And you reveal the marble face of the brief, reticent proverb,
by giving it meaning and voice. [ 34 ]

     In the poems of C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), although there are no proverbs used verbatim, there are many proverbial re-echoes.
[ 35 ]Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) also used a number of proverbs in his popular novels Alexis Zorbas and Captain Michalis; in the latter at least 50 proverbs have been identified and enumerated.
[ 36 ] Finally, Giannis Ritsos (1909-90), in a poem based on the proverb If there is fire in your neighbourhood, wait for it in your own house, concludes: 'Nobody nowadays is far from fire.' [ 37 ]

      This collection contains both ancient Greek maxims and proverbs and modern Greek proverbs alike in order to demonstrate the continuity of Greek tradition. Of the recorded proverbs there are various versions, but the most common variants have been selected. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order including a key-word index for each language at the end of the book.

      It is hoped that this bilingual collection of Greek maxims and proverbs will interest the readers in general but be of special value to students and translators of the main European languages.