Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2002 / 6 Tishrei, 5763

Richard Lederer

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How wise is proverbial wisdom? | A proverb is a well-known, venerable saying rooted in philosophical or religious wisdom. Just about everybody knows some proverbs, and we often base decisions on these instructive maxims.

But when you line up proverbs that spout conflicting advice, you have to wonder if these beloved aphorisms aren't simply personal observations masquerading as universal truths:

  • We often proclaim that actions speak louder than words, but at the same time we contend that the pen is mightier than the sword.

  • How can it be true that you should look before you leap but make hay while the sun shines?

  • It's better to be safe than sorry, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  • Haste makes waste, but he who hesitates is lost.

  • Patience is a virtue, but opportunity knocks but once.

  • Slow and steady wins the race, but gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

  • Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but faint heart never won fair maiden.

  • Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, but don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

  • There's no place like home and home is where the heart is, but the grass is always greener on the other side and a rolling stone gathers no moss.

  • Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise because what you don't know can't hurt you, but it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness because the unexamined life is not worth living.

  • Too many cooks spoil the broth, but many hands make light work.

  • Two's company and three's a crowd, but the more the merrier because two heads are better than one.

  • If at first you don't succeed, try try again, but don't beat a dead horse.

  • Silence is golden, but the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

  • Clothes make the man, but beauty is only skin deep because you can't judge a book by its cover and all that glitters is not gold.

  • All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

  • A stitch in time saves nine, but better late than never.

  • The bigger, the better, but the best things come in small packages.

  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

  • What will be will be, but life is what you make it.

  • Don't cross your bridges before you come to them and don't count your chickens before they're hatched, but forewarned is forearmed and well begun is half done.

  • What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but one man's meat is another man's poison.

  • With age comes wisdom but out of the mouths of babes and sucklings come wisdom.

  • Turn the other cheek and forgive and forget, but an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth because turnabout is fair play.

  • It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game, but all's fair in love and war and the ends justify the means.

Quite apparently, whichever side of an argument one takes, one can usually find a proverb to support it. That's why Miguel Cervantes wrote, "There is no proverb that is not true," while Lady Montagu proclaimed that "general notions are generally wrong."

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, Richard Lederer