English Proverbs (their meanings and origins)

English Proverbs (their meanings and origins)

A proverb is a short, pithy saying that expresses a traditionally held truth or piece of advice, based on common sense or experience.

Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society's values and beliefs is its proverbs.

Here's a list of most of the commonly-used proverbs in the English language, with links to the meaning and origin of many of them.

'A bad penny always turns up'.

It means that a disreputable or prodigal person will always return. More generally, this proverb refers to the recurrance or any unwanted event.

This proverb has lived long in the language. It derives from the notion that some coins were 'bad', that is, they were debased or counterfeit.

'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'.

It means that it's better to have the certainty of a small thing than the possibility of a greater one which may come to nothing.

This proverb is one of the oldest and best-known in English and came into the language in the 16th century. The allusion may be to the falconry where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey).

'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link'.

The proverb has a literal meaning, although the 'weakest link' referred to is figurative and asually applies to a person or technical featurer rather than the link of an actual chain.

'A cat may look at  king'.

An inferior isn't completely restricted in what they may do in the presence of a superior.

'A fish rots from the head down'.

When an organisation or state fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause.

'A friend in need is a friend indeed'.

It can have two meanings: If you are in need and someone helps you, that person deserve to be a true friend, and if someone needs your help might become your friend in order to obtain it.

'A golden key can open any door'.

Enough money or the promise of it, will accomplish anything.

The origin of this saying must be as old as money itself.

 'A leopard cannot change its spots'.

This means that things cannot change their nature. 

The first mention of this proverb is found in the Bible: Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may be also the good, that are accustomed to do evil'.

'A penny saved is a penny earned'.

It is as useful to save money that you already have as it is to earn more.

The original form of this proverb used 'got' or 'gained' instead of 'earned'. That is recorder as early as the 17th century, in George's Herbert's Outlandish Proverbs: 'A penny spar'd is twice got'.

'A picture is worth a thousand words'.

A picure tells a story just as well as, if not better than, a lot of written words.

It emerged in USA in the early 20th century. Its introduction is widely attributed to Frederick R. Barnard, who explained the effectiveness of graphics in advertising with the title 'One look is worth a thousand words'.

 'A place for everything and everything in its place'.

The notion than everything should have a place to be sotored and that it should be tidily returned there when not used.

This proverb dates from before the late 18th century, when it appears in a story published by the Religious Tract Society in 1799 - The Naughty Girl Won: "Before, however, Lucy had been an hour in the house she had contrived a place for everything and put everything in its place".

'A rolling stone gathers no moss'.

This proverb refers to what is well known about mosses and lichens -that they are slow-growing organisms that don't thrive on disturbance. A sure way to prevent a colony of moss from growing on a stone is to move it about. As with all proverbs, it isn't the literal meaning that conveys the sense but the metaphor. A 'rolling stone' refers to a wanderer, unable to settle to any job or lifestyle and therefore characterised as unreliable and unproductive.

The notion was known to the ancient world and Greek and Latin versions of the phrase are cited by Erasmus in the third volume of his collection of Latin proverbs.

A stitch in time saves nine’

A timely effort will prevent more work later.

The ’stitch in time’ is simply the prompt sewing up ir a small hole or tear in a piece of material, so saving the need foro more stitching at a later date when the hole has become larger. Clearly the first users of this expression seré referring to saving nine stitches.