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November 17, 2004 - Proverbs in American English, Part 2 - 2004-11-17

Broadcast: November 17, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster we have part two of our look at proverbs in American English.

RS: We continue our conversation with Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont, and a widely published expert on proverbs.

AA: And there are certainly lots of them, although there are also many proverbs that different cultures have in common. So is this a case where "great minds think alike"?

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "If you look back in history and you compare the proverbs let's say of Germany, England, and also including the United States, France, Russia, Italy, Spain, you'd be surprised how many absolutely identical proverbs there are. The reason why that is, is that many of our everyday proverbs actually originated in Greek and Roman antiquity.

"I'll give you an example. 'Big fish eat little fish' is a proverb that goes back, way back, into Greek antiquity, and then it was translated in Europe from language to language and it wound up in England, and of course the immigrants brought it to the United States."

RS: Professor Mieder says the Bible is the second major source for proverbs that cross national boundaries.

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "I'll give you an example: 'Man does not live by bread alone' is absolutely identical in France, it's identical in Germany, it's identical in Poland. So that's the second major group. And the third one is Medieval Latin. If you take the proverb 'strike while the iron is hot,' we know it started in the Middle Ages, in Latin, and they used proverbs at that time to teach youngsters foreign languages, in other words Latin and French or Latin and German and so on."

RS: "Speaking of learning languages, how useful are proverbs in learning American English or any other language?"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "Oh, oh, extremely important. You know, those instructors who, let's say -- or students who study to become teachers of English as a second language -- are very interested in teaching some of the colloquial language like proverbs and phrases. And we are now doing studies where, through questionnaires -- thousands of questionnaires -- we have established which proverbs, let's just say in the United States, are the most popular."

AA: "And could you tell us the top five?"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "Well, I will not say that these are exactly the top five, but I'll give you some examples."

AA: "OK, great."

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "Well, 'strike while the iron is hot' is certainly one. 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' is one. 'New brooms sweep clean' might be one."

AA: "Now that's an old one. I haven't heard that one in a while."

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "That's actually a Medieval Latin one that was translated into all of those languages as I mentioned. Let me give you some new American ones that one ought to know. 'It takes two to tango.' That started in 1952 with Pearl Bailey's famous song 'Takes Two to Tango.'"


WOLFGANG MIEDER: "And then there is 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'"

RS: "Well, that had to start with modern photography."

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "That started in 1921 with an advertising campaign."

RS: "That was what I was going to ask you. What's the difference between a proverb and advertising jargon -- "

AA: "Or slogan."

RS: " -- or slogan? Can an advertising slogan morph it's way into becoming a proverb?"

WOLFGANG MIEDER: "You're catching on beautifully. [Laughter] Yes, if an advertising slogan has a certain amount of wisdom to it or generality or truth, then advertising can become a proverb. In fact, I would say that one of the most important sources for modern proverbs is advertising."

AA: Wolfang Mieder is a professor at the University of Vermont.

RS: If you have a favorite proverb, send it to us! Our e-mail address is And you can visit us online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC "Takes Two to Tango"