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

Obscure Proverbs

A feast uncovers a European’s wooden leg. (Oji—West African).
After a feast comes excessive drinking, by drinking men become intoxicated, intoxication leads to the exposure of mental defects and weaknesses.

A fortune gone to hashed fish. (Japanese).
A fortune dissipated by neglect or misuse.

A ground sweat cures all diseases. (English).
A ground sweat—i.e., a burial.

A hundred bleedings for a zuz, a hundred heads for a zuz, a hundred lips for nothing. (Hebrew).
The ancient Hebrews held that every man should learn a trade, but as some trades were more honourable and profitable than others it was a father’s duty to teach his son a trade that would command respect. Among those that were considered unprofitable was that of the barber, who, throughout the East, added to his other duties the practice of blood-letting—hence the proverb which may be rendered, “A hundred bleedings for a zuz, a hundred hair-cuttings for a zuz, a hundred moustache trimmings for nothing.”

All goeth down Gutter Lane. (English).
“Gutter-Lane (right spelling whereof is Guthurnlane, from him the once owner thereof) is a small lane inhabited anciently by goldsmiths, leading out of Cheapside, east to Foster Lane. The proverb is applied to those who spend all in drunkenness and gluttony, mere belly gods; guttur being Latin for the throat.”—John Ray.

A loyal heart may be landed under Traitor’s bridge. (English).
There was an entrance to the Tower under Traitor’s bridge.

A quarrel arises from saying “You,” “I.” (Osmanli).
When one man charges another, saying “You did it,” and the other answers “I did not do it,” a quarrel arises between them.

A shoe of silver makes iron soft. (Marathi).
A bribe will soften the heart of the obdurate.

Between truth and falsehood, the distance is four fingers. (Hindustani).
Truth is seen with the eye; falsehood is heard with the ear. The space between the eye and the ear may be covered by four fingers. Sometimes the proverb is rendered, “Between truth and falsehood the distance is four inches,” four inches being the supposed distance between the eyes and ears on both sides of the face.

Belyve is twa hours and a half. (Scotch).
Belyve—i.e., immediately.
The proverb is applied to people who promise to perform some task without delay but whose habits of procrastination are such as to render it certain that their promise will not be kept.

Bringing the water and breaking the pitcher are the same thing. (Persian).
A proverb applicable to employers who do not appreciate faithful service on the part of their employees but who are as inconsiderate to those who are loyal to their interests as to those who are careless and neglectful. There is an Hindustani proverb that expresses the same thought: “Those that sing the praises of Huru and that merely utter inarticulate sounds are treated alike.”

Death was not sufficient for the dead; the grave, moreover, must press upon him. (Arabic).
Mohammedans believe “that the tomb presses upon the body therein deposited either lightly or heavily according to the sins or merits of the deceased.”—J. L. Burckhardt.
The meaning of the proverb is that the man’s character was so bad that he was punished not only by death but by the pressure of the grave.

Die at Benares or die on hereditary land. (Marathi).
Die at Benares and so make sure of your salvation, or die on hereditary land and so make sure of a provision for your children.

Do not open the mouth of the sack. (Osmanli).
Do not divulge the secret. Sometimes the proverb is rendered, “Do not open the little box, you will make (something) bad speak”—it will lead to evil results.

Do not speak of a cup; there is a bald person in the house. (Osmanli).
It would be indiscreet to cast reflection on the baldness of any person by an implied or indirect comparison. The outer surface of a cup is smooth like a bald head.

Even a river will forgive three offences. (Telugu).
A drowning man is supposed to sink three times before finally disappearing from sight.

Every hog has his St. Martin’s day. (Spanish).
The season for killing hogs in Spain is about the middle of November. St. Martin’s day falls on November 11th.

Every house has an earthen fireplace. (Telugu).
“Every man hath his faults.” (English).

Every pumpkin is known by its stem. (Hebrew).

  • “The childhood shows the man,
  • As morning shows the day. Be famous then
  • By wisdom; as thy empire must extend,
  • So let extend thy mind o’er all the world.”
  • John Milton.
  • Every way, or at every end, there are three leagues of heart-breaking. (Spanish).
    When a man’s affairs are in bad condition and he is unable to extricate himself from difficulty, every way leads to further complications; at every end he finds an obstacle and he is near disaster.

    Everything has an end, and a pudding has two. (English).
    The old English long pudding was called a “leg pudding” because of its supposed resemblance to a human leg.

    Hadst got up early, thou needest not have stayed up late. (Hebrew).
    If you had been industrious in your youth it would not have been necessary to work in old age.

    Has the black cat passed from between us? (Osmanli).
    Have we had a quarrel?

    Has the cat leaped over it that it is not here? (Hindustani).
    The Hindu people think that food over which a cat has jumped is unfit to eat.
    The question is asked, by way of reproof, to servants who fail to bring to their masters that which they were told to bring.

    Have you poked my eye with my own finger? (Telugu).
    Have you turned my arguments against me?

    He appears as if he ate roasted spits. (Spanish).
    See “Curious Proverbial Similes and Comparisons.”

  • “He looks as if he were hatching eggs.”
  • Applied to people who are stiff and formal in their manner, corresponding to the English simile, “As stiff as a ramrod.”

    He claps his dish at a wrong man’s door. (English).
    See “Curious Proverbial Similes and Comparisons.”

  • “His tongue moves like a beggar’s clap dish.”
  • The clap dish was a wooden vessel used by beggars in olden times for collecting coins. It was called a “clap dish” because it had a cover which the beggars clapped on a number of times with much noise to attract attention and show that the dish was empty. As people became accustomed to the clatter of the clapping and ceased to respond, the beggars added thereto the ringing of a bell.

    He cooks booze in the nape of his neck. (Osmanli).
    He is drunk.

    He has got a turn through the reek. (Gaelic).
    Reek—i.e., smoke.
    This saying refers to the old superstitious practice of placing a newly christened child into a basket and passing him over a fire to protect him against the power of evil spirits.

    He made him ride upon two horses. (Hebrew).
    “He made assurance doubly sure.”

    He is gilding the elephant’s tusk. (Bengalese).
    He is a good man and shows his goodness by continuing to walk in the paths of virtue.

    He is driving his hogs over Swarston bridge. (English).
    Swarston bridge being long and narrow, hogs when driven over were so crowded together that they made a loud grunting noise to show their discomfort; hence arose this saying, which was applied to men snoring in their sleep.

    He saw a large stone, kissed it, and left it. (Persian).
    When he saw the nature of the task that was assigned to him, he realized his inability to perform it, and prudently declined to begin work.

    He’ll lick the white frae your een. (Scotch).
    “This phrase is always applied when people, with pretence of friendship, do you an ill turn, as one licking a mote out of your eye makes it bloodshot.—Allan Ramsay.

    He will follow him like St. Anthony’s pig. (English).
    St. Anthony of Padua was regarded as the protector and patron saint of the lower animals, particularly pigs.
    “St. Anthony was originally a swine-herd, and in all pictures and sculptures is represented as followed by a pig, frequently having a bell about his neck. Probably this pig might have been one of his former eleves, before he took on himself the trade of a saint. The attachment of this pig or hog, at length, grew proverbial.”—Francis Grose.
    “St. Anthony is notoriously known for the patron of hogs, having a pig for his page in all pictures, though for what reason unknown; except because being a hermit and having a cell or hole digged in the earth, and having his general repast on roots, he and hogs did in some sort enter commons, both in their diet and lodgings.”—Thomas Fuller.
    “The officers of this city (London) did divers times take from the market people pigs starved or otherwise unwholesome for man’s sustenance; these they did slit in the ear. One of the proctors of St. Anthony’s Hospital tied a bell about the neck and let it feed upon the dunghills; no one would hurt or take it up; but if anyone gave it bread or other feeding, such it would know, watch for and daily follow, whining till it had somewhat given it; whereupon was raised a proverb, such a one will follow such a one, and whine as if it were an Anthony pig.”—John Stow.

    He who is guilty of sin easily begets daughters. (Marathi).
    As daughters are regarded by the people as less desirable than sons their birth is held to be a punishment inflicted on the parents for sins that they committed in a former existence.

    He whose stomach is full increaseth deeds of evil. (Hebrew).
    Wealth leads to indolence and pleasure seeking; indolence breeds discontent and wrong-doing. “Work produces virtue, and virtue honour.” (German).
    See Deut. viii:10–14; xxxii:15; Hos. xiii:6.

    He wipes his trouble on his cheek. (Old Calabar—West African).
    He exercises great patience and forbearance.

    He who sells a house gets the price of the nails. (Japanese).
    A saying commonly used to indicate that a man receives but a small portion of the value of his house when he sells it.

    His eyes draw straws. (English).
    He is sleepy. The saying is thought to have come from the narrow strawlike rays of light that one appears to see when his eyes are nearly closed.

    His understanding is lost in his strength. (Arabian).
    He is tall and stupid.

    I do not want a shoe larger than my foot. (Hebrew).
    I do not want to marry above my station.

    I have had a dumb man’s dream. (Bengalese).
    I have had a dream that I cannot recall, or one that I ought not to relate.

    In the evening a red man is black. (Oji—West African).
    Among Europeans people are designated as blondes or brunettes, so among the African Negroes they are designated as black (coal black) and red (ruddy brown).
    “By candle light a goat looks like a lady.” (French).

    It is a good thing to eat your brown bread first. (English).
    Hardships are more easily borne in youth than in old age.

    It is more difficult to cross the door sill than to walk about the house. (Marathi).
    The hardest part of an enterprise is getting started.

    It is not common for hens to have pillows. (Gaelic).
    It is not meant that common people should affect a position and manner of living to which they are not accustomed.

    Little boy who won’t listen to his mother dies under the Monday sun. (French Guiana—Creole).
    “All Creole mothers are careful to keep their children from reckless play in the sun, which is peculiarly treacherous in those latitudes where the dialect is spoken. Hence the proverb applicable to any circumstance in which good advice is reluctantly received.”—Lafcadio Hearn.

    May your heels keep the spur o’ your head. (Scotch).
    May you be able to carry out your purpose.

    Misery for two is Misery & Co. (Louisiana Creole).
    “Before you marry have where to tarry.” (Italian). “Be sure before you marry of a house wherein to tarry.” (Spanish). “Before you marry have a house to live in, fields to till, and vines to cut.” (Spanish).

    My affairs are like Nandan’s camp. (Tamil).
    Nandan was “the name of a shoemaker who is reputed to have reigned as a king for three hours, and to have issued leather coin.”—P. Percival.

    No one will meddle with a piece of furniture that has a mouth. (Spanish).
    No one cares for that which is of no benefit and requires constant care and expense.

    Not to know B from a battledore. (English).
    This saying is supposed to have been first used when the horn-book was employed for the instruction of children. The horn-book was made of thin oak wood about nine inches long and six inches broad. On it were printed the letters of the alphabet and the nine digits, and sometimes the Lord’s Prayer. It had a handle and was covered in front by a sheet of thin horn. Not to know B when seen on the horn-book was not to know B from a battledore and to be quite illiterate.

    Once to a friend, twice to a friend, but thrice—and it is his fatal day. (Modern Greek).
    A man can pardon a friend’s offence once and even twice, but not a third time.

    One’s own pedal proves a crocodile. (Bengalese).
    The crocodile lying motionless on the shore resembles a log of wood from which a household pedal is formed.
    One’s own kith and kin are most hostile.

    Out of God’s blessing into the warm sun. (English).
    “To jump out of the frying-pan into the fire.” (English).

  • “Good King, that must approve the common saw,
  • Thou out of heaven’s benediction comest
  • To the warm Sun.”
  • Shakespeare: King Lear.
  • People who have their ears above their heads. (Haytian).
    People who are obstinate and insubordinate.

    Rub your brother’s arm. (Hindustani).
    Spoken ironically to one who attempts to perform a task that is beyond his strength, or who, having failed in an undertaking, boasts of his skill or prowess.
    It is common in India to show admiration for a successful wrestler by rubbing or squeezing his arms.

    Send dog, and dog sends tail. (Trinidad Creole).
    Applied to those who act by proxy.

    Shake the salt off and throw the meat to the dog. (Hebrew).
    As salt preserves meat, so the soul preserves the body. When death comes and the soul takes its flight nothing remains but a worthless body.

    She is fond of gape seed. (English).
    She is fond of staring at everyone she meets and at everything she sees.

    Something must be done to become white. (Spanish).
    Something must be done to restore his good name.
    There seems to be an allusion in this saying to the powdering of the face in order to give it a fairer appearance.

    Tak’ up the steik in your stocking. (Scotch).
    Reform your life. “Turn over a new leaf.”

    That will happen in the week of four Thursdays. (Louisiana Creole).
    You will keep your promise when a week has four Thursdays and not before.

    The beard will pay for the shaving. (English).
    The work will pay for itself. The proverb is used in referring to men who receive a part or all of the proceeds of their labour as a compensation for their services.

    The black ox hath not trod on his foot. (English).
    The black ox represents any kind of misfortune or trouble.
    “Venus waxeth old: and then she was a pretie wench, when Juno was a young wife; now crow’s foote is on her eye, and the black oxe hath trod on her foot.”—John Lyly.

  • “Abide [quoth I], it was yet but honey moon;
  • The black ox had not trod on his nor her foot,
  • But ere this branch of bliss could reach any root
  • The flowers so faded that, in fifteen weeks
  • A man might espy the change in the cheeks.”
  • John Heywood.
  • “Why then do folke this proverbe put,
  • The black oxe meere trod on thy foot,
  • If that way (marrying) were to thrive?”
  • Thomas Tusser.
  • The boat on the cart, and the cart on the boat. (Bengalese).
    As the boat sometimes carries the cart across the stream and the cart sometimes transports the boat to the river bank, so men are subject to reverses in fortune; sometimes they are rich and support others and sometimes they are poor and become dependent on the help of others.

    The bully takes twenty twentieths. (Urdu).
    “I carry off the chief share because I am called the lion.”—Phædrus.

    The crow has a maid servant in autumn. (Gaelic).
    The man keeps more servants than he requires.

    The goat met the water and wetted his whiskers. (Arabian).
    He became over indulgent because of opportunity.

    The harelip is taken for a dimple. (Japanese).
    Used to indicate the blindness of love.

    The hand is shallow but the throat is deep. (New Zealand).
    He is too lazy to work, but he is a great eater.

    The horse and the head are together. (Osmanli).
    The man on horseback bends forward so that his head is near that of the horse.
    The saying is applied to people who seem to have few difficulties or troubles.

    The needle, borax, and a good man—these three repair breaches. (Bengalese).
    The needle is used for mending clothes, borax for soldering metal, and a good man for healing difficulties in society.

    The Passover is celebrated within the house and the chanting is carried outside. (Hebrew).
    When the members of a household are happy their happiness spreads to those outside.

    There is no warmth, the garment is too small.
    Meaning that the war party is not large.

    The remedy of one is two. (Hindustani).
    If force is required to restrain a furious man, it should be the force of two.

    There’s my thoom, I’ll ne’er beguile thee. (Scotch).
    “It was an old custom in Scotland, when lovers plighted their troth, to lick the thumbs of each other’s right hands, which they pressed together and vowed fidelity.”—Andrew Cheviot.

    There went but a pair of shears between this and that. (English).
    They are so much alike that they seem to be cut from the same piece of cloth.

    The sail-arm of the windmill does not turn unless it is greased. (Osmanli).
    Services cannot be secured from others unless money is given.

    The teeth are not the heart. (Martinique Creole).
    The exposure of the teeth in laughter does not always indicate that the heart is merry.

    The third tongue slays three: the speaker, the spoken to, and the spoken of. (Hebrew).
    By the third tongue is meant the tongue of slander.
    “A phrase used often in the Targum, the Aramaic version of the Bible, and also in Syriac. Slander is a vice most fiercely denounced in Rabbinical literature. Some of the things said about the slanderer are: ‘He magnifies his iniquity as far as Heaven,’ ‘He is worthy of stoning,’ ‘The Holy One says, I and he cannot dwell together in the earth,’ ‘The retailer of slander and also the receiver of it deserve to be cast to the dogs.’”—A. Cohen.

    The writing written on the forehead never fails. (Telugu).
    This saying originated in the Hindoo belief that every man’s fate is recorded in the sutures of the skull.

    They met the blacksmith on the road and said, “Make a knife for us.” (Assamese).
    They asked a blacksmith to ply his trade away from his forge.
    The saying is used in referring to untimely requests.

    They shall pull us! They shall pull us! Then we shall sleep without fire. (Oji—West Africa).
    “West Africans, who have scanty clothing, sleep by the side of a fire during the colder nights of the year. When troubled by the smoke, they order a slave, or some one handy, to remove the cause of offence. If, however, this is done too often, the fire will disappear and the cold will become more troublesome than the smoke was. The proverb warns men to choose the lesser of two evils, not to incur the risk of a greater for the purpose of ridding oneself of the smaller trouble.”—Richard F. Burton.

    Thou hast added water, add flour also. (Hebrew).
    You have asked many questions, now say something that is worth listening to.

    Today drunk with fun, tomorrow the paddle. (Mauritius Creole).
    The proverb has special reference to slave days when neglect of duty was followed by punishment.

    To reckon another’s buttons. (Spanish).
    The saying contains an allusion to a skilful fencer who is able to strike any part of his antagonist’s body, and is applied to people who are shrewd in dealing with others.

    To say “I” is the devil’s affair. (Osmanli).
    An egotist is the product of the devil.

    Two to one I shall change myself to a crane. (Spanish).
    If my antagonist is superior to me in strength, there are two chances to one that I will retreat.

    What comes over the devil’s back goes under his belly. (English).
    What one gains by dishonest practices will not profit the possessor and may bring much trouble.
    “‘By my faith,’ said Cleveland, ‘thou takest so kindly to the trade, that all the world may see that no honest man was spoiled when you were made a pirate. But you shall not prevail on me to go farther in the devil’s road with you; for you know yourself that what is got over his back is spent—you wot how.’”—Sir Walter Scott: The Pirate.

    What you want to say, say it tomorrow. (Japanese).
    “Think before you speak.” (English).

    When a tree is blown down, it shows that the branches are larger than the roots. (Chinese).
    Misfortune shows whether a man is strong in profession only, or in character.
    “We live in our roots not in our branches. What is your soul? Not, what is your talk? What is your quality? Not, what is your pretension or profession? How many men there are who are all branch! What will become of them? Ask the wind.”—Joseph Parker.

    When death comes, the dog presses up to the wall of the mosque. (Osmanli).
    When death draws near, men turn toward religion for comfort and strength.

    When he was born, Solomon passed by his door and would not go in. (Spanish).
    He might have been a wise man, but he is nothing but a fool. Applied to people who seem to be lacking in common sense.

    With an old kettle one can buy a new one. (Spanish).
    An old man with money can marry a young girl if he wishes to do so.

    Within two and a half fingers’ breadth of the sky. (Marathi).
    His conceit is so great that he acts as though his head almost reached to the sky.

    You may blow till your eyes start out, but if once you offer to stir your fingers you will be at the end of your lesson. (Gascon).
    This saying alludes to one blowing on a reed-pipe.
    “We can say, Cicero says thus; these were the manners of Plato; these are the very words of Aristotle. But what do we say ourselves that is our own? What do we do? What do we judge? A parrot could say as much as that.”—Michael de Montaigne.

    You will give I know, but you will eat your shoes. (Kashmiri).
    To “eat your shoe” is to be beaten with a shoe.
    You will pay your debt, but not until you are compelled to do so by a thrashing.