Word expert Don Hauptman once wrote of a ‘linguistic peeve’ – the widespread misuse of the adjective ‘proverbial’, offering this example from a magazine profile of a government whistleblower: “When she grabs hold of something, she is like the proverbial dog with a bone in its teeth.” Of course, this expression is not a proverb; it’s a metaphor or simile (or, less charitably, a cliché).
Permissive dictionaries have shamefully capitulated, sanctioning this popular solecism. But if you adopt a prescriptive attitude, a proverb communicates a truth, principle or moral lesson in a pointed and pithy style: “Out of sight, out of mind”; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, etc. It contains a nugget of wisdom, expressed incisively and memorably. It is also serious – it means business.
While these and many other traditional proverbs remain relevant and ingrained in our culture, new ones are constantly being created (“garbage in, garbage out”; different strokes for different folks”).
In contrast an epigram is equally profound, succinct and catchy, but possesses the additional virtues of wit and bite. Its ingredients may include satire, cynicism, irony or paradox: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” (Oscar Wilde); “remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience” (Samuel Johnson).
Then there’s the irresistible urge to give a new spin or a funny twist to a well-known adage: “Every crowd has a silver lining” (P T Barnum); and “absence makes the heart grow fonder – of someone else”; and “familiarity breeds attempt”.
Mr Hauptman offers his own list of fractured proverbs that are original, at least as far as he could ‘determine from a cursory search of the internet, quotation anthologies, and all fortune cookies ever baked’.
They include: “One man’s trash is another man’s rubbish”; “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no socks”; and “He who wears his heart on his sleeve receives humongous dry-cleaning bills.”
The tribulations of romantic relationships are fertile territory, such as “If she can wrap you around her little finger, you’re probably under her thumb”. And finally “You don’t need to find the meaning of life, as long as you find a life of meaning”.