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A proverb is a short, simple statement that gives advice. It is based in common experience.

Proverbs are rooted in common sense and a shared understanding of the world. Sometimes proverbs seem simple on the surface but actually have an allegorical or metaphorical meaning when they’re considered more broadly.

Proverb pronunciation: Praw-vehrb

Proverb definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of Proverb 

Proverbs become popular through common use. As they are used throughout time and make their way into a group’s culture they become more widely known. This perpetuation of their use ensures that they’re passed down for generations to come. It is also possible to find something known as an “anti-proverb,” or one that’s been changed and twisted to suit an author’s literary work or create a humorous passage. 


Source of Proverbs 

Proverbs originate from a variety of sources. Some of the most popular come from famous thinkers and philosophers such as Plato and Confucius while others come from poetry, plays, and novels. Some proverbs are even found in advertisements. Others originate with religious text, such as the Bible and the words of Jesus Christ. Some of these were written with the intent of the phrases becoming well-known while others simply evolved that way over time. Contemporary authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are known for creating proverbs in their respective works.


Examples of Popular Proverbs 

  • Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  • All that glitters is not gold.
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
  • Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone. 
  • Haste makes waste. 
  • A stitch in time saves nine. 
  • Ignorance is bliss. 
  • Don’t cry over split milk. 
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 
  • Fortune favours the bold. 
  • Well begun is half done. 


Examples of Proverbs in Literature 

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

In Achebe’s well-loved novel Things Fall Apart there are several noteworthy proverbs. These include: 

  • If a child washes his hands he could eat with kings.
  • A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm.

The first of this suggests that if one takes care of themselves and respects themselves then they’re going to have a better future with improved circumstances.


The Works of William Shakespeare

In Shakespeare’s plays and poems there are numerous now well-known proverbs. For example: 

From first to third these originate from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and Merchant of Venice. 


The Works of J.R.R. Tolkien 

In Tolkien’s writing, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to The Silmarillion, readers can find examples of proverbs. Some of these include: 

  • Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.
  • All that is gold does not glitter.
  • Oft in lies truth is hidden. 

The second of these has come especially well-known among English-speakers today. It is easy to find this phrase in a variety of texts, on merchandise, and more without a direct connection to Tolkien. 


The Book of Proverbs 

In the Bible there is a famous set of probers that is attributed to Solomon, King of the Jews. Some of these include: 

  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but a fool despises wisdom and instruction.
  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
  • As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. 


Proverbs and Other Sayings

Proverbs and Idioms 

An idiom is defined by the fact that the meaning of the words is different than the meaning of the idiom. For example, “the cat’s out of the bag” doesn’t actually refer to a cat but rather to a piece of information being revealed to the general public. Proverbs on the other hand give advice more clearly. 


Proverbs and Truism 

Truisms are aphorisms, as well as proverbs. The other difference is that the truism is so vague that it’s almost without meaning. This is in regard to the very general way in which it deals with the world. Proverbs can become truisms over time if they’re used too often and start to lose their impact. These sayings feel cliche and uninteresting due to their overuse. 


Proverbs and Maxims 

A maxim is another related term, one that refers to a statement of general truth. These in relation to morals, religion, and spirituality. A maxim can be a proverb or an aphorism—not both. This is in regard to its authorship (if there is more than one author). Maxims do not use metaphors, as some great aphorisms and proverbs do. Instead, they state their meaning clearly. For instance, the well-known maxim “two wrongs don’t made a right.” 


Proverbs and Aphorisms 

Proverbs are very similar to aphorisms, in fact, in most cases, they are exactly the same except for one defining feature. Aphorisms have authors that are known and can be traced. This means that they usually come from a popular source, one that’s recorded in writing. In contrast, proverbs are much harder to pin down. They could date back to a time in which it was uncommon to write this type of saying down or a period in which writers had no interest in doing so. One common example of an aphorism with an origin is ‘all’s well that ends well” which originates from the play of the same title by William Shakespeare. 


Related Literary Devices 

  • Adage: a short, familiar, and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
  • Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Epigraph: a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc).
  • Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
  • Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
  • Idiom: a short-expression that means something different than its literal translation.


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