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D.E. Marvin, comp. Curiosities in Proverbs. 1916.

Impossibilities and Absurdities in Proverbs

A blind woman shaves an insane one. (Arabian).
“The libán shámy is a white shining gum of a glutinous quality, a kind of turpentine that is imported into Egypt from the islands of the Archipelago, particularly from Scio, where it is produced from a species of fir. It is used in a melted state, the finger being dipped into it and rubbed over the face, by which process all the hair to which it sticks is eradicated. The women of Cairo, whose beauty is obscured by hair on the skin, avail themselves of this depilatory.”—J. L. Burckhardt in Arabic Proverbs.
The proverb is used by the Arabs in Cairo in speaking of people who are employed in occupations to which they are not fitted.

A bungalow upon an inch of ground. (Kashmiri).
“The protuberance is larger than the body.” “The pearl (in her nose ring) is heavier than her nose.” “A man as big as your fist, his beard a cubit long.” (Marathi). “The kakri is one cubit long; its seed nine cubits.” The kakri is a kind of cucumber. (Behar). “A cucumber twelve cubits long, with seeds thirteen cubits.” (Bengalese). “A staff a cubit long in a house a span wide.” “A stick two yards long in a room one cubit square.” (Telugu).
The above proverbs are applied to people who make great preparations for some trifling matter, who spend money beyond their ability, who make great pretensions or who try to carry a larger responsibility than they are able. They are also sometimes used as retorts.

A garland of flowers in a monkey’s paw. (Telugu).
See Biblical Proverbs—New Testament: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest haply they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you.”

Aggrieved because she had no eyes, she purchased a looking-glass for two derhems. (Arabian).

A good head has one hundred hands. (Russian).

A miss is as good as a mile. (English).
The origin of this absurd proverb is unknown, but it has been conjectured that it is a corruption of the saying, “Amis is as good as Amile,” Amis and Amile being legendary soldiers of Charlemagne who were alike in many things.

A mountain hid behind a straw. (Hindustani).
A great opportunity easily seen, or a great benefit easily obtained.

Among ten men nine are women. (Turkish).
Only one man in ten has manly qualities.

A painting on water. (Persian).
An undertaking that amounted to nothing.

As comely as a cow in a cage. (English).

  • “Whatever she were then (said one), she is now
  • To become a bride, as meet as a sow
  • To bear a saddle. She is, in this marriage,
  • As comely as is a cow in a cage.”
  • John Heywood.
  • A scorpion never stung me, but I cured myself with its grease. (Italian).

    As the bird flies I can count his feathers. (Bengalese).
    You cannot deceive me with all your plausible arguments and explanations. I see through your scheme and know your deceitful and knavish purposes.

    As wonderful as a bullock climbing a tree, or the lobe of the ear pierced with a holonga. (Assamese).
    Both men and women pierce their ears in Assam.
    The holonga is a pole that is balanced on the shoulders and always used in carrying burdens which are suspended from the ends.

    A toad propping a bed-post firmly. (Chinese).

    Can your house be burnt down with hot water? (Telugu).

    Deaf people sometimes hear quickly. (Japanese).

    Digging up a mountain to catch a rat. (Telugu).

    Do not squeeze sour grape juice in your eye. (Osmanli).
    Your troubles are of your own making. Do not vex your mind over matters that do not concern you.

    Do you want a stone roller to break an egg with? (Telugu).

    Fried wind and snow on the spit. (Modern Greek).
    The occurrences that you describe are impossible.

    He blew a conch to report that there was nothing; and beat a drum to intimate that there was not even that. (Tamil).

    He blushes like a black dog. (English).

    He calls for a shoeing-horn to help on his gloves. (English).

    He catches the wind with a net. (English).
    Many such absurd expressions are used to express the futility of attempting to accomplish the impossible.
    “He gives straw to his dog and bones to his ass.” “He is building a bridge over the sea.” “He is making ropes of sand.” “He numbers the waves.” “He ploughs the air.” “He seeks wool on an ass.” “He takes a spear to kill a fly.” “You ask an elm-tree for pears.” “You go to a goat to buy wool.” “You look for hot water under the ice.” (English). “He draws water with a sieve.” “He hides the sun with a sieve.” (Modern Greek). “To drink from a colander.” “You use a lantern at noon day.” (Latin). “To dig a well with a needle.” (Turkish). “To go with a sieve to fetch water.” “He gathers nuts among the rushes.” (Welsh).

    He displays his horsemanship in an earthen pot. (Tamil).

    He fled from the rain and sat down under the water-spout. (Arabian).

    He gave him vinegar to drink upon the wings of flies. (Arabian).
    He tormented him in the most cruel and deliberate way that was possible.

    He makes the camel leap a ditch. (Osmanli).

    He said that the stork died while waiting for the ocean to dry in the hope of getting a supply of dried fish. (Tamil).

    He sees a glowworm and thinks it a conflagration. (Turkish).

    He’s unco fond o’ farming that wad harrow wi’ the cat. (Scotch).

    He tells me to put the elephant into the cotton basket, to place the basket on his head, and to lift him up. (Telugu).

    He who has killed a thousand persons is half a doctor. (Tamil).
    See Bible Proverbs—New Testament: “Physician, heal thyself.”
    All nations unite in holding physicians responsible not only for the cure but also for the death of their patients. The common people of every age have derided and ridiculed their claims, as they have the claims of priests and lawyers. This is not surprising when it is remembered that nearly all the proverbs now in use originated in times of man’s ignorance and when superstition had much to do with all the affairs of life and influenced both physicians and patients in their opinions and practices. A few proverbs will indicate the nature of the taunts that were in common use among men.
    “A broken apothecary, a new doctor.” “God healeth and the physician hath the thanks.” “Physicians’ faults are covered with earth and rich men’s with money.” “The patient is not likely to recover who makes the doctor his heir.” “The doctor seldom takes physic.” “With respect to the gout, the physician is but a lout.” “Time cures more than the doctor.” “While the doctors consult the patient dies.” “Diet cures more than the lancet.” “The physician owes all to the patient, but the patient owes nothing to him but a little money.” (English). “Do not dwell in a city whose governor is a physician.” (Hebrew). “The physician takes the fee but God sends the cure.” (German, Spanish). “A new doctor, a new grave-digger.” “A young physician should have three graveyards.” “New doctor, new churchyard.” “No physician is better than three.” “When you call the physician, call the judge to make your will.” “Who has a physician has an executioner.” (German). “Time and not medicine cures the sick.” “The earth hides as it takes the physician’s mistakes.” “The doctor says that there is no hope, and as he does the killing he ought to know.” (Spanish). “The doctor’s child dies not from disease but from medicine.” (Tamil). “Everyone ought to be his own physician.” (Modern Greek). “God is the restorer of health and the physician puts the fee in his pocket.” “’Tis not the doctor who should drink the physic.” (Italian). “The blunders of physicians are covered by the earth.” “If you have a friend who is a physician, send him to the house of your enemy.” (Portuguese). “If the doctor cures the sun sees it, but if he kills the earth hides it.” (Scotch). “The doctor is often more to be feared than the disease.” (French).

    His head aches that has no head. (Bengalese).
    This proverb is applied to men who are over desirous to obtain that which is unattainable. There is a similar Sanskrit proverb: “Headache where the head is wanting.”

    His nose is cut off and he says “There is a hole.” (Marathi).

    If a serpent love thee, wear him as a necklace. (Arabian).
    Court the good opinion of those whom you fear; treat with great consideration and politeness those who have it in their power to injure you.

    If iron becomes copper, a straw may become a pillar. (Tamil).
    Both are impossible, so also is the matter about which you speak.

    If the ocean were to become clouds, the world would be flooded. (Tamil).

    If your grandmother were masculine we would call her grandfather. (Modern Greek).

    Is the elephant in the rice-pot or in the water-pot? (Tamil).
    “If an elephant be lost, is it to be sought in an earthen pot? “The same reason is applicable alike to elephants and earthen pots.” “She will stab the elephant and cover it with a sieve.” “Having tied the elephant she will cover it with a winnowing fan.” “Like putting one’s hand into a water-pot in search of a missing elephant.” (Tamil).

    It is likely the sea will take fire. (Osmanli).
    “Pigs might fly, but they’re very unlikely birds.”

    It is said that the horse has not only thrown its rider, but is digging his grave. (Tamil).

    It’s as true as Biglam’s cat crew, and the cock rock’d the cradle. (Scotch).
    It is not true.

    It’s by the mouth o’ the cow that the milk comes. (Scotch).
    You must not expect good milk from an ill fed cow. “The cow little giveth, that hardly liveth.” “It is by the head the cow gi’es milk.” “As the cow feeds, so she bleeds.” (English). “The cow gives milk through her mouth.” (German). “Whether in strath, or in glen, ’tis from her head the cow’s milk comes.” (Gaelic). “Out of her head the cow is milked.” (Irish).

    It’s lang or ye need cry “Schew” to an egg. (Scotch).

    One-eyed men have a vein extra. (Hindustani).
    By the loss of one eye they have increased the power of vision in the other. One-eyed people are supposed to have greater knowledge than others.

    Putting the cart before the horse. (Welsh).
    Found in various forms among all people.

    Putting the heaviest load on the weakest horse. (Welsh).

    Put your head under your arm. (Hindustani).

    Sending a duck to fetch geese from the water. (Welsh).

    Shave the egg and take its hair. (Modern Greek).
    “You can’t get blood from a stone.” “You can’t flay a stone.” “You can’t strip a naked man.” “One cannot shear a naked sheep.” (English). “It’s ill to tak’ the breeks aff a Hiellandman.” (Scotch). “It’s hard to take the horns off a hornless cow.” (Gaelic). “One can’t comb a thing that has no hair.” “You cannot get oil out of a wall.” (French). “You cannot draw blood from a turnip.” “You cannot damage a wrecked ship.” (Italian). “You cannot take a cow from a man who has none.” (Danish). “Like taking the bark off a stone.” (Telugu). “A thousand men cannot undress a naked man.” (Modern Greek). “Not even a thousand men in armour can strip a naked man.” (Turkish). “You cannot strip two skins from one cow.” (Chinese).

  • “Eggs I’ll not shave; but yet, brave man, if I
  • Was destined forth to golden sovereignty,
  • A prince I’d be, that I might thee prefer
  • To be my counsel both and chancellor.”
  • Robert Herrick.
  • She will sit in one’s eye cross-legged, and tether five elephants to the pole of a dancer. (Tamil).

    Should the mustache of one’s aunt grow we may call her uncle. (Tamil).

    Teeth do not wear mourning. (Trinidad Creole).
    Smiles and laughter may cover a breaking heart.

    The blind man sought for a needle in the straw-loft, and the man with a lame hand made a basket to put it in. (Modern Greek).

    The distinction of big and little does not apply to snakes. (Tamil).

    The egg made faces at the chicken. (Telugu).
    Applied to people who insolently mock their superiors.
    “It is not good or safe to point the mockery behind the grand seignior’s back.” (Turkish). “A disciple greater than his Guru.” (Telugu).

    The dwarf seizing the moon with his hands. (Bengalese).
    Applied to those who revile their superiors from a feeling of jealousy or seek to obtain high official positions for which they are unqualified.

    The healthy seeking a doctor. (Welsh).
    Used when people speak or act inconsistently.

    The hen he has caught has four legs. (Telugu).
    Used in referring to a tale narrated by one who has been guilty of gross exaggeration.

    The lamb teaching the sheep to graze. (Welsh).

    The lazy person has no legs. (Arabian).
    “None so blind as those who won’t see.” (English). “None so deaf as those who won’t hear.” (French, Italian, Spanish, Danish).

    The pestle has fallen in one village, and headaches are felt in another. (Bengalese).
    The injury inflicted is felt by another.
    “Other folks’ burdens kill the ass.” (English). “Other folks’ cares kill the ass.” (Spanish).

    There is a difference between Peter and Peter. (Spanish).

    The river flowing upwards. (Hindustani).
    Used in referring to something impossible.

    The story of one who wandered through the jungle in search of a lamb that he had on his shoulder. (Tamil).
    See Wit and Humour in Proverbs: “One man’s beard is burning, another goes to light his cigarette by it.”
    Proverbs of absent-mindedness are numerous:
    “By mistake he poured butter-milk into butter-milk.” (Telugu). “Searching the village for the copper pot which is under his arm.” “The shoemaker is sitting on his awl and beats his boy for taking it.” “The child is on her hip and she searches the Maharwada for it.” (Marathi). “The milk is on the fire, and the thoughts elsewhere.” “Crying a child through the town, and it is in the nurse’s lap.” (Bengalese). “Ye’re like the man that sought his horse, and him on its back.” (Scotch). “You look for the horse you ride on.” (Russian). “He looks for his ass and sits upon his back.” (French). “The butcher looked for his knife while he had it in his mouth.” “The butcher looked for the candle, and ’twas in ’s hat.” (English).

    The world going upside down, the horse mounted on the horseman. (Gaelic).

    Thou readest the Psalms to the inhabitants of the tombs. (Arabian).
    “The Psalms are seldom read by Moslems because they assert that the Christians have interpolated them; yet they acknowledge that David was inspired by Heaven when he composed and sang them. Nobody thinks, however, of reading or reciting to the dead.”—J. L. Burckhardt.
    You are unlike other men: you do what no one else would think of doing.

    To ask the blind if it is daybreak. (Welsh).

    To bind the water with thread. (Persian).
    This saying is used by the Persians for two purposes:
    (1) He is engaged in an impossible or useless occupation; and
    (2) He is accomplishing his purposes by stratagem.

    To cool the eyes by applying butter to the soles of the feet. (Marathi).
    The man high in authority and influence benefits himself by bestowing favours on those who occupy a lower station in life.

    To dip up the great ocean with a small shell. (Japanese).

    To give a shellful of medicine to a sick mountain. (Marathi).
    The means would be inadequate and the procedure absurd, but no more absurd than attempting to remedy a great evil by the use of insignificant measures.

    To give the loaf and ask for the slice. (Welsh).

    To grease a lump of lard. (Welsh).

    To keep a dog and bark yourself. (English, Scotch, Welsh).
    To keep servants in the house and do your own work.

    To make a peg firm by shaking it. (Marathi).
    To render an opinion regarding a matter about which one has made few inquiries and is only partially informed.

    To make a young tree grow in the divan passage. (Osmanli).
    This would be impossible as the divan passage is usually paved with stone and is in constant use.

    To pound water in a mortar. (Persian).

    To show the path to one who knows it. (Welsh).

    To tie a priest’s hair in a knot. (Japanese).
    Which would be impossible owing to the fact that the priests shave their heads.

    Using a mirror to look at one’s bracelets. (Bengalese).
    Exerting oneself to discover that which is plainly visible.

    “Why, man, have you got up into the tamarind tree?” He replied, “To pluck grass for my kitten.” (Tamil).
    “You fellow, Why did you go up the cocoanut tree?” When thus addressed, he replied, “I went to get grass for the calf.” (Tamil).
    Equivalent to the common phrase, “It’s none of your business.”

    You dance in a net and think nobody sees you. (English).