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Proverb Lore by F. Edward Hulme

In 1659 James Howell issued a series of proverbs


1659 James Howell issued a series of proverbs, and some of these were incorporated in Randle Cotgrave's dictionary in the following year. This latter has been deemed "that most amusing of all dictionary makers." He quotes many French proverbs, and then gives English adages that more or less match them. Thus under faim he gives "A la faim il n'y a point de mauvais pain," which, he explains, means that "To him who is hungry any bread seems good"--not quite a sufficiently literal translation, we should have thought, for a dictionary-maker--and adds, "We say hungrie dogs love durtie pudding."[49:A] Howell's proverbs were, as a whole, not very judiciously selected, and he had the presumption and bad taste to spin out of his own imagination a series of what he called "New Sayings which may serve for Proverbs for posterity." These were very poor, and posterity has declined to have anything to do with them.

In this same year, 1659, a small volume of adages, compiled by N. R. (Nathaniel Richards), appeared.

They are all in English, but are mostly of foreign origin, and are of no great interest or value.

A much more notable book is the "Gnomologia: Adagies and proverbs; wise sentences and witty sayings, ancient and modern, foreign and British, collected by Thomas Fuller, M.D." As the compiler gives over six thousand proverbs, we may regard the book as a fairly adequate one. He gives

in it no indication of the sources from whence the adages are derived, adds no explanatory notes, and works on no system. This is equivalent to writing a natural history and leading off with panther and earwig. It is, as a matter of fact, very difficult to classify a collection of such disconnected units as proverbs. If we attempt to do it by countries we may soon find that it is in most cases quite impossible to guess where the adage originated, and the general borrowing that has been going on for centuries makes anything like a local claim to exclusive possession impossible. It would be quite easy to write out a list of fifty proverbs, illustrating them exclusively by passages from Cervantes and other Spanish writers, and, on the strength of this, claiming them as Spanish, but it would be equally easy afterwards for Dane, Russian, and German, Englishman, Italian, and Greek to come and each claim so many of these items that the speedy outcome would be an almost absolute disappearance from our list of anything purely Iberian.

There is a good deal to be said in favour of the alphabetical arrangement, but only on condition that the leading word of the adage be taken. It is a mere absurdity to take the first word. How can we reasonably put under letter A, "A rolling stone gathers no moss"? It may be objected that we are putting an extreme case, but extreme cases have to be considered as much as any others. In one book before us we find that the old author in scores of instances produces results as grotesquely inadequate. Under the letter D, for instance, we find, "Do not spur a willing horse," though surely everyone, with the exception of the compiler of the list, would at once realise that the pith of the adage does not in any way rest in "do." We may at once see this if we take the proverb in another of its popular forms, "Spur not a willing horse."

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