Today we’re returning to our series of occasional blogs spread over the year and looking at British proverbs, their meanings and origins.
A proverb is a short, pithy saying that neatly expresses a commonly held truth or piece of wisdom. Proverbs have proved so useful in language that they appear in most cultures, often playing an important role in religion or spiritual teachings, as well as everyday life.
A great deal of common sense and worldly experience is encapsulated in proverbs. Today we’ll take a look at some beginning with the letter ‘E’:
Every cloud has a silver lining: Here’s an old proverb for those days when everything seems dark and dismal! It’s literal meaning is that even the darkest cloud will be edged in a silvery light betraying the sun shining behind it and waiting to come out. Used in a broader sense, the proverb tells us that if you look for it, there is some good aspect to every bad situation. It is usually recited as an encouragement to someone enduring gloomy times and unable to see a brighter future ahead. The “silver lining” part of the proverb was coined by John Milton in his 1634 work “Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle”. It contains the lines: “Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”. The notion of a silver lining has since been widely used in prose and song lyrics, including the 1949 song “That Lucky Old Sun”, made famous by Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, louis Armstrong and others. It contains the lines: “Dear Lord above, can’t you know I’m pining, tears all in my eyes. Send down that cloud with a silver lining, lift me to paradise.” Click here to hear Louis Armstrong’s version of the song.
Empty vessels make the most sound: Here’s a proverb that literally ‘rings true’. It means that those people who are devoid of wisdom, knowledge, talent or expertise are often the ones who talk the most and loudest and make the most commotion. The term ‘vessel’ here refers to a drinking vessel – imagine striking an empty metal chalice with a small hammer and hearing it ring like a bell, while the same chalice full of wine would make very little sound. In the proverb, ‘vessel’ also evokes the human body as the container for a person’s wisdom, intellect and knowledge, suggesting that someone filled with these qualities often makes far less noise that those lacking them. The proverb is found in print as early as 1430, written as: “A voyde vessel maketh outward a great sound”. From its earliest times the adage was used in reference to public orators, politicians or anyone who ‘talks a lot and says nothing’.
Enough is as good as a feast: We live in aspirational times driven by high pressure advertising which urges us all to continually strive for more and better in a world where we can never possess enough. Perhaps we’d do well to think on this particular proverb, which reminds us that there is such a thing as ‘enough’, and we can be fully satisfied with it. Once we’ve had enough, what more do we really need? The proverb uses a food analogy to suggest that once we’ve eaten enough to satisfy our hunger, it is as good as any elaborate banquet. Like most proverbs, it also applies to many other aspects of life. For example, once we have enough money in the bank to live comfortably and provide for our loved ones, why keep striving for more, especially if it means missing out on the truly important things in life?
Eagles don’t catch flies: Less well known than many proverbs, yet succinct and precise, this one means that great or important people need not trouble themselves with trifling matters or insignificant people. Instead they have (if you’ll pardon the mangling of maxims) ‘bigger fish to fry’. Thought to be an ancient Greek proverb, it is found in print in a collection of adages compiled by Dutchman Erasmus, first printed in 1500 and expanded in later editions. Like many proverbs, it is often given as a piece of advice, especially to those who aspire to greatness.
East is east and west is west: First appearing in Rudyard Kipling’s “Barrack-room Ballads” (1892), the fuller version of this proverb tells us: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”. In other words, it is extremely difficult to find common ground or agreement between two things which are poles apart. Though the proverb is now used to suggest that two opposing sides can never be reconciled, Kipling’s original “Ballad of East and West” serves to show that just the opposite is true. In the poem, two men from very different backgrounds and who start out as enemies come to gain a mutual respect and end as friends. Sadly, some people use the proverb in a racist way to claim two cultures can never co-exist side by side – a notion which would have Kipling turning in his grave! It is only the first line of the poem which is quoted as the proverb, ignoring the closing two lines which serve to contradict it: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!”