Introductory: Conceptual background of paremiology: origins, definitions and nature of the proverb.

There was undoubtedly more intellectual seriousness than some would allow to the often quoted opening remarks of Archer Taylor’s chapter on “The Origins of the Proverb” that “The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking; and should we fortunately combine in a single definition all the essential elements and give each the proper emphasis, we should not even then have a touchstone.” Although much of the rest of his book covers the ground suggested here, he never reaches an explicit encapsulated conclusion to the problem of definition. His next observation will prove a good deal more productive for our purposes: “An incommunicable quality tells us this sentence is proverbial and that one is not. Hence no definition will enable us to identify positively a sentence as proverbial. Those who do not speak a language can never recognize all its proverbs, and similarly much that is truly proverbial escapes us in Elizabethan and older English.” It is with this “incommunicable quality” and its definition, in so far as is possible, from today’s perspective, that our examination here will be concerned and from which it will proceed to consideration of the uses of the proverb in medieval Icelandic literature.

Past Adumbrations:
1. Conjectured Concrete Origins of the Proverb.

Bartlett Jere Whiting’s articles on “The Origin of the Proverb” [Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 13 (1931) 47-80.] and “The Nature of the Proverb,” [Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 14 (1932) 273-307.] though written for an earlier audience than today’s, demonstrate a perspicacity of observation and clarity of thinking such that they are still included in bibliographies on this discipline. Writing at a time when ballad theorists and other folklorists were still toying with the concept of communal origins, he emphasizes “popular” origins, the proverb as created by an individual but in interaction with a society. From the former article, let us consider his rather specific and concrete description of the origin of a proverb as formulated within the context of his time.

If a given person makes a generalization, that generalization will appear to any of his fellows as one which he himself had made but had failed to express. To illustrate: a group of men are watching a burning building, the flames of which are fanned by a high wind; one of them remarks, “the wind makes the fire burn more fiercely.” This statement, the expression of a percept, is felt to be common property. If another man adds, “a high wind always makes a fire burn more fiercely,” his generalization, or concept, is common property as well. It is a statement which any might have made, and those who did not make it feel that it expresses their own experience and judgment. From this literal application, figurative applications might grow, until such a saying as “high winds make fires burn” might be used much as we actually do use the familiar statement about “fire and tow,” which must, in its turn, have developed from a percept to a concept with literal application, and then have been used, as it now is, figuratively, as a proverb.2     2For the tendency of the lowest savages to work their percepts into concepts, see John Murphy, Primitive Man, His Essential Quest (London, 1927), pp. 8, 9.

Whiting articulates this conjectured process because of the pressures of ideas about “communal origins” in his time, but clearly he identifies here a way in which a proverb might well come into being, and indeed in which many probably did so.

The specific and concrete outline of the process, addressed as it was to critical issues of Whiting’s time, might seem to exclude from human creativity the possibility of proverbs being invented by individuals in other conditions and without the popular interaction which his narrative assumes. Nevertheless his description contains the kernel of the psychological process of paremiological activity which is pertinent to studies in ultimate definition. That which we might most generally identify as proverbial arises clearly from the power of the human mind

1. To observe and
2. To generalize about those observations,
3. Perhaps, but not necessarily, broadening that generalization into a metaphorical response.

2. Defining Features Commonly Accepted as Definitive of the Proverb.

A. Traditionality. Whiting, again in “Origin,” addresses further a problem with which later scholars have been sometimes preoccupied, namely the means by which we might establish that a statement is proverbial:

How can we be sure, when Chaucer uses what appears to be a proverb, that this is not a mere invention and on the same footing as its admittedly invented context? For this there are several tests. First, if the proverb has been recorded before Chaucer’s time, the problem is solved. Again, if it appears after Chaucer, but from a source quite unlikely to have been influenced by Chaucer, we have a right to assume its existence prior to Chaucer. Then, too, if Chaucer takes pains to emphasize the fact that he is quoting an old proverb, we may, perhaps, choose to believe him. If we find a proverb in Chaucer which stylistically does not fit the context, we may suspect that Chaucer did not invent it for the occasion.2  Finally, and this is less conclusive, we are at liberty to consider the fact that other authors, as already suggested, have failed in their attempts to imitate the proverb.      2See, for example, CT. D 655-658.

Whiting’s approach to the authenticity of seemingly proverbial material in, say, Chaucer is partly dependent on the common assumption of the traditionality of a proverbial statement, that it has enjoyed a period of common usage. There is a naivety in this assumption, associated with the vagueness of communal theories to which Whiting himself wisely did not subscribe but also with happy ideas of the folk busily though unwittingly undertaking the authentication of a potentially proverbial statement by using it enough times so there can be no doubt as to its proverbial level of existence. And this latter naivety seems to the present a trap into which Whiting did fall, simply because of the state of folkloric thinking in his time. The idea that traditionality must lie within the definition of the proverb requires further definition of traditionality itself, a calibrated measurement of the length of time a proverbial statement must be used before it is truly proverbial, and then also, by logical extension, the frequency with which the proverb is uttered during that time. Without such measurement, traditionaliy has no clear meaning and thus no valid application in the process of defining what is and what is not a proverb.

This is not to claim that the study of the traditionality of a proverb is useless, merely that it has no particular reference to the definition of proverbiality itself. One might, then, pursue the problem of whether a given proverb, once identified as such by an established definition, can be demonstrated to be traditional in literary or in oral culture. And the nature of that traditionality might be further considered with profitable results. For instance, studies of provenance would fall logically in this area of the discipline.

B. Metaphorical Value. A similarly irrelevant requirement for admission to a state of proverbiality, the metaphorical value, can be identified in his description of the birth of a proverb when he observes that “From this literal application, figurative applications might grow, until such a saying as “high winds make fires burn” might be used much as we actually do use the familiar statement about ‘fire and tow,’ which must, in its turn, have developed from a percept to a concept with literal application. The process of metaphorical relevance to observed experience certainly has occurred with a class of proverbs, but surely again, it does not seem to be a requirement for true proverbiality. Taylor himself, in his “Origins” chapter, treats in one section “Metaphorical Proverbs,” in which he observes, “The most interesting and artistic proverbs arise from the metaphorical use of a simple act or event.” [p. 10] He clearly does not think all true proverbs must have a metaphorical value, however, nor must they necessarily do so.

“Let us be content,” Taylor has observed at the outset of his work, “with recognizing that a proverb is a saying current among the folk.” This seems at first a reasonable observation, that a proverb has demonstrable currency in a culture. The dictionary definitions of paremiologically related terms. . . . [insert text of OED citations]



To other introductory essays:
Introduction to the Concordance Project and Site
Construction and Use of the Concordance

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