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November 10, 2004 - Proverbs in American English, Part 1 - 2004-11-09

Broadcast on VOA News Now: November 10, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: proverbs in American English.

RS: It's tempting to call Wolfang Mieder the proverbial expert from out-of-town. A professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, he has dedicated his career to studying proverbs from around the world. After talking to Professor Mieder, we realized that good things really do come to those who wait.

AA: "Now you know originally I wanted to set up this interview for a couple of weeks ago."


AA: "But then you told me that you were out of town. And then Rosanne was out of town. So what is the proverb that I'm looking for here ... "

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "When you can't find anybody, you mean?"

AA: "Or I was thinking -- "

RS: "Or count on someone."

AA: " -- or not counting your chickens before they hatch?"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: " ... before they hatch, right. And then, of course, I could have said, 'You know, Rosanne, absence makes the heart grow fonder.' So if I'm not here, maybe you try harder to reach me. You know, that's the nice thing about proverbs; you can really find one for any situation. But you can also find one that opposes it. I just mentioned 'absence makes the heart grow fonder.' But of course you know the proverb 'out of sight, out of mind.'

"So you have to keep in mind that proverbs are not a logical system, but rather that they are based on life's observations, generalizations and experiences, and they are as contradictory as life itself."

RS: "Now what is a proverb and how did proverbs come about?"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "I think a nice definition would be a proverb is a concise or short statement of an apparent truth which has currency among the people. And I want to stress the 'apparent' truth, because, you know, proverbs are not in every situation true.

But anyhow, proverbs came about because people, especially in times when there was no writing, people observed things and realized that this seems to be recurring all the time -- let's just say the proverb 'look before you leap,' it seems to make sense that you ought to check out things before you jump ahead.

And in order to transmit that experienced wisdom, people couched them into metaphors or images with some nice forms like alliteration and rhyme and parallelism. And then they could be memorized and handed down from grandfather and grandmother to grandchild, and from generation to generation."

RS: "German is your first language -- "

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "That's right."

RS: "English is your second language -- "


RS: " -- what role did proverbs play for you when you came to the United States to learn American English."

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "Well, I remember I used to have trouble with 'it is six of one or half-dozen of the other.' I had a friend who made me practice it because I could never quite say it right. The proverbs that give you problems are those that are specifically cultural bound. Let me give you a modern American one. When I first came to America in 1960, among the African American population of Detroit and other urban areas of the United States, there was the proverb 'different strokes for different folks.' And, you know, that became very popular then through a rock-and-roll song by Sly and the Family Stone. You might recall that."

MUSIC: "Everyday People"/Sly & the Family Stone, 1968

"We got to live together

"There is a yellow one that won't accept the black one

"That won't accept the red one that won't accept the white one

"And different strokes for different folks

"And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "'Different strokes for different folks' happens to be my favorite American proverb by now. Now 'different strokes for different folks' is, in my opinion, a proverb that has to have grown on American soil, because it tells you and me that whomever we deal with ought to give us a chance to be our own person. In other words, to let us do the things that we would like to do and not always, at least, force onto us rules and regulations that you might like."

AA: We'll hear more from University of Vermont Professor Wolfgang Mieder next week on VOA News Now. In the meantime, if you'd like to send us e-mail, write to

RS: Internet users can find all of our segments at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.