Proverbs and sayings are facts of language. They are collected in dictionaries. There are special dictionaries of proverbs and sayings. It is impossible to arrange proverbs and sayings in a form that would present a pattern even though they have some typical features by which it is possible to determine whether or not we are dealing with one. These typical features are: rhythm, sometimes rhyme and/or alliteration.
But the most characteristic feature of a proverb or a saying lies not in its formal linguistic expression, but in the content-form of the utterance. As is known, a proverb or a saying is a peculiar mode of utterance which is mainly characterized by its brevity. The utterance itself, taken at its face value, presents a pattern which can be successfully used for other utterances. The peculiarity of the use of a proverb lies in the fact that the actual wording becomes a pattern which needs no new wording to suggest extensions of meaning which are contextual. In other words, a proverb presupposes a simultaneous application of two meanings: the face-value or primary meaning, and an extended meaning drawn from the context, but bridled by the face-value meaning. In other words, the proverb itself becomes a vessel into which new content is poured. The actual wording of a proverb, its primary meaning, narrows the field of possible extensions of meaning, i.e. the filling up of the form. That is why we may regard the proverb as a pattern of thought. So it is in every other case at any other level of linguistic research. Abstract formulas offer a wider range of possible applications to practical purposes than concrete words, though they have the same purpose.
Almost every good writer will make use of language idioms, by-phrases and proverbs. As Gorki has it, they are the natural ways in which speech develops.
Proverbs and sayings have certain purely linguistic features which must always be taken into account in order to distinguish them from ordinary sentences. Proverbs.are brief statements showing in condensed form the accumulated life experience of the community and serving as conventional practical symbols for abstract ideas. They are usually didactic and image bearing. Many of them through frequency of repetition have become polished and wrought into verse-like shape, as in the following: "to cut one's coat according to one's cloth." "Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
Brevity in proverbs manifests itself also in the omission of connectives, as in: "First come, first served." "Out of sight, out of mind."
But the main feature distinguishing proverbs and sayings from ordinary utterances remains their semantic aspect. Their literal meaning is suppressed by what may be termed their transferred meaning. In other words, one meaning (literal) is the form for another meaning (transferred) which contains the idea. Proverbs and sayings, if used appropriately, will never lose their freshness and vigour. The most noticeable thing about the functioning of sayings, proverbs and catch-phrases is that they may be handled not in their fixed form (the traditional model) but with modifications. These modifications, however, will never break away from the invariants to such a degree that the correlation between the invariant model of a word-combination and its variant ceases to be perceived by the reader. The predictability of a variant of a word-combination is lower in comparison with its invariant. Therefore the use of such a unit in a modified form will always arrest our attention, causing a much closer examination of the wording of the utterance in order to get at the idea. Thus, the proverb 'all is not gold that glitters' appears in Byron's "Don Juan" in the following form and environment where at first the meaning may seem obscure:
"How all the needy honourable misters,
Each out-at-elbow peer or desperate dandy,
The watchful mothers, and the careful sisters
(Who, by the by, when clever, are more handy
At making matches where "t'is gold that glisters"
Than their he relatives), like flies o'er candy ;
Buzz round the Fortune with their busy battery, ;
To turn her head with waltzing and with flattery."
Out of the well-known proverb Byron builds a periphrasis, the meaning of which is deciphered two lines below: 'the Fortune', that is, 'a marriageable heiress').
It has already been pointed out that Byron is fond of playing with stable word-combinations, sometimes injecting new vigour into the components, sometimes entirely disregarding the semantic unity of the combination. In the following lines, for instance, each word of the phrase safe and sound gets its full meaning.
"I leave Don Juan for the present, safe—
Not sound, poor fellow, but severely wounded;"
proverb Hell is paved with good intentions is used by Byron in a peculiar way, thus making the re-appraise the hackneyed phrases.
".................if he warr'd Or loved, it was with what we call the best
,Intentions, which form all mankind's trump card, To be produced when brought up to the test.
The statesman, hero, harlot, lawyer—ward Off each attack, when people are in quest
The sion to reader
Of their designs, by saying they meant well. 'Tis pity that such meaning should pave hell."
the archaic form of glitters
The stylistic effect produced by such uses of proverbs and sayings is the result of a twofold application of language means, which, as has already been emphasized, is an indispensable condition for the appearance of all stylistic devices. The modified form of the proverb is perceived against the background of the fixed form, thus enlivening the latter. Sometimes this injection of new vigour into the proverb causes a slight semantic re-evaluation of its generally accepted meaning. When a proverb is used in its unaltered form it can be qualified as an expressive means (EM) of the language; when used in a modified variant it assumes the one of the features of an SD, it acquires a stylistic meaning, though not becoming an SD.
We shall take only a few of the numerous examples of the stylistic use of proverbs and sayings to illustrate the possible ways of decomposing the units in order simply to suggest the idea behind them:
"Come!" he said, "milk's spilt." (Galsworthy) (from 'It is no use crying over spilt milk!').
"But to all that moving experience there had been a shadow (a dark lining to the silver cloud), insistent and plain, which disconcerted her." (Maugham) (from 'Every cloud has a silver lining').
"We were dashed uncomfortable in the frying-pan, but we should have been a damned sight worse off in the fire." (Maugham) (from 'Out of the frying-pan into the fire').
"You know which side the law's buttered." (Galsworthy) (from 'His bread is buttered on both sides').
This device is used not only in the belles-lettres style. Here are some instances from newspapers and magazines illustrating the stylistic use of proverbs, sayings and other word-combinations:
"...and whether the Ministry of Economic Warfare is being allowed enough financial rope to do its worst." (from 'Give a thief rope enough and he'll hang himself).
"The waters will remain sufficiently troubled for somebody's fishing to be profitable." (Economist) (from 'It is good fishing in troubled waters').
A newspaper editorial once had the following headline:
"Proof of the Pudding" (from 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating'). Here is a recast of a well-known proverb used by an advertizing agency: "Early to bed and early to rise No use—unless you advertize" (from 'Early to bed and early to rise Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise').
Notice this recast by Lewis Carroll of a well-known saying: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves."