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

Quotation Proverbs

“A begun turn is half ended,” quo’ the wife when she stuck her graip in the midden. (Scotch).
“A jocular beginning of work, which, if it went no further, would be long enough ere it were finished.”—Alexander Hislop.
“Weel saipet is hauf shaven.” (Scotch). “Boldly ventured is half won.” “A good beginning is half the work.” (German). “Two parts of work is to begin it.” (Welsh). “Begun is two-thirds done.” (Gaelic). “To begin a matter is to have it half finished.” “A man prepared has half fought the battle.” “To be lucky at the beginning is everything.” (Spanish). “It is a small thing to run, we must start at the right moment.” “A happy beginning is half the work.” (French). “For a web begun God sends thread.” (French, Italian). “A good beginning is half the battle.” (English).
“He who has begun, has half done.”—Horace.
There are many variations of the phrase. “Well begun is half done”—which is commonly used in France, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland, America, and other lands, but in all cases they can be traced to Hesiod, who declared that “The beginning is half of the whole.”

After he had eaten and was reclining on the sofa, he said, “Thy bread has a smell of mastick.” (Arabian).
“Ruse the ford as ye find it.” (Scotch). “Praise the bridge which carries you over.” “Nice eaters seldom meet with a good dinner.” (English).

A large stone crushed a lizard. It said, “So he who is stronger than one treats one.” (Yoruba—West Africa).
“The big fish eat the little ones, the little ones eat the shrimps, and the shrimps are forced to eat mud.” (Chinese).

A monkey watches tormus. “Look,” said one, “at the guard and the crop.” (Arabian).
When the Arabs of Cairo see a base man holding an official position that seems to them degrading, they are reminded of a monkey watching bitter beans, and they quote the proverb.
“Boiled tormus beans are sold in the morning at the bázár and principally eaten by children without either salt or butter. The meal of this bean is used instead of soap by the poorer classes for washing their hands, and on this account it is very generally cultivated in Egypt.”—J. L. Burckhardt.

A splinter entered the sound eye of a one-eyed person, “I wish you good-night,” said he. (Arabian).
Having lost the sight of his one sound eye he became totally blind so that it was always night to him.
“Never judge by appearances.” (English).

At a watering place they say, “Lift for me.” (Oji—West African).
Watering place in the sense of a place where water is obtained, as, for example, a well. At such a place the women say to each other, “Help me to lift my full waterpot on my head,” for that is the manner of carrying water.
“A little help does a great deal.” “Soon or late the strong need the help of the weak.” “A little thing often helps.” (French). “A little thing often brings great help.” “Many can help one.” (German). “A willing helper does not wait until he is asked.” (Danish). “Even the just have need of help.” (Italian).

Confucius said, “A man without distant care must have near sorrow.” (Chinese).
That is, a man who does not consider the future will soon have sorrow.
“He who looks not before finds himself behind.” (French). “He who does not look before him must take misfortune for his earnings.” (Danish). “He that will not look before him must look behind him”—with vain regret. (Gaelic).
“The wise man is on his guard against what is to come as if it were the present.”—Publius Syrus.

Confucius said: “The inferior man’s capacity is small and easily filled up; the superior person’s intelligence is deep and difficult to overflow.” (Chinese).

“Fate assigns all things,” say the indolent and base. (Sanskrit).
A reproof to those who excuse their ill doings on the ground that they are under the power of fate.
“He that does amiss never lacks excuses.” “Any excuse will serve when one has not a mind to do a thing.” (Italian). “Everyone is the maker of his own fate.” (English).
“Every man is the maker of his own fortune.”—Sallust.

“Gie her her will, or she’ll burst,” quo’ the man when his wife kamed his head with the three-legged stool. (Scotch).

He first promises a thing and then, “Get out of the way!” (Osmanli).
“He first makes me a promise, then when I go to him and ask for the fulfilment of his pledge he tells me to get out of the way.
Applied to people who do not keep their promises.

“He fled, disgrace upon him!” is better than “He was slain, God have mercy upon him!” (Arabian).
See Bible Proverbs—Old Testament: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Applied in derision to a cowardly soldier.

He prays upon his rosary the prayer of the mouse: “O most holy, who hast created me for vile doings.” (Arabian).
Applied to hypocrites who seek excuse for their ill deeds and cover their base purposes by religious practices.

He’s a friend at sneezing time—the most that can be got from him is a “God bless you!” (English, Italian).
The practice of responding to a sneeze, though dating back many centuries, is not so old, as the belief that sneezing itself was ominous of good or evil. Homer tells us that Princess Penelope prayed to the gods for the return of her husband Ulysses and was rewarded by a sneeze from her son Telemachus, which was regarded by Penelope as a sign that her petition was granted. Aristotle declared that in his day people considered a sneeze, but not a cough, as divine; that the Greeks believed that a business transaction, when accompanied by two to four sneezes, was likely to prove successful; and asked why sneezing from noon to midnight was good and from night to noon unlucky. Xenophon, having finished an address to his soldiers with the words, “We have many reasons to hope for preservation,” heard one of the men sneeze, whereupon he declared that it was a sign of good luck. Pliny said that it was considered fortunate to sneeze to the right, and unfortunate to sneeze to the left or near a burial place.

  • “Love stood listening with delight,
  • And sneezed his auspice on the right.”
  • Catullus.
  • Socrates always felt encouraged to carry out any enterprise that he had in hand when someone at his right happened to sneeze; when the sneeze came from a person at his left he abandoned his project whatever it might be.
    Sneezing at a Roman banquet was considered particularly ominous; when it happened, some article of food that had been removed was brought back to be again tasted, to counteract the evil effect of the sneeze.
    Among the Greeks and Egyptians, as well as among the Romans, sneezing was regarded as a kind of oracle, warning those who heard it against the danger of any course of action and foretelling the future.
    There is an inscription in Latin, in the garden of the Fawn at Pompeii which may be freely rendered: “Victoria, good luck to thee and wherever thou wilt, sneeze pleasantly.”
    St. Austin declared that “the ancients were wont to go to bed again if they sneezed while they put on their shoe.”
    In India, Hindoos at the Ganges, when interrupted in their devotions by a sneeze, never venture to continue, but repeat their prayers again from the beginning.
    Among the Zulus of Africa, sneezing is a sign of the presence of a good or evil spirit, and among the Persians, of demoniacal possession.
    The custom of responding to a sneeze is said to have originated with the Patriarch Jacob. According to an old legend, sneezing before his time was fatal. This was a great sorrow to him, for it kept everyone in constant fear lest by an unexpected sneeze death would immediately follow. So he prayed to God that this law of nature might be removed, and his prayer was granted on condition that every sneeze should be consecrated by an ejaculatory prayer—hence we find responses such as these in common use: “Long may you live,” “Jupiter preserve you,” “May you enjoy health,” “Hail,” “God save you,” “God bless you,” etc. This last response is said to have been first used in Athens, where a sneeze by a person afflicted with the plague was regarded as an evidence that he had passed the crisis of his disease and that recovery was possible.
    May it not be that many people in past centuries have found confirmation for this strange superstition in the story of the raising of the Shunamite’s son found in the Scriptures. (See II Ki. iv:35).

    He walks upon the highest part of the wall and says: “For safety we trust to God!” (Arabian).
    Applied to people who expose themselves to danger and expect God will keep them from suffering any harm.
    “If you leap into a well, Providence is not bound to help you out.” (English). “God helps those who help themselves.” (German, French, English, Italian, etc.).

    He who has done eating will say, “He who eats at night is a sorcerer.” (Oji—West African).
    See Bible Proverbs—New Testament: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
    It is believed by many that the sin against which a man fights his hardest battles is the sin that he most severely condemns in others.
    “He that finds fault with rusticity, is himself a rustic.”—Julius Cæsar.

    He who knows not how to play his game, says, “My place is narrow”; they have made him find room, and he says, “My sleeve is tight.” (Osmanli).
    “A cough is the musician’s trick to hide a blunder.” (Greek). “When a musician hath forgot his note he makes as though a crumb stuck in his throat.” (English).

    If thou forgettest to say, “Praise be to God,” in what other words wilt thou pray? (Arabian).
    This proverb is applied to people who, intending to execute some important business, become so absorbed in its details that they neglect to perform the most important part of the transaction.

    If you never went into another man’s plantation, you would say, “I am the only planter.” (Oji—West African).
    “He who does not go forth and explore all the earth is a well frog.” (Sanskrit). “The frog in the well sees nothing of the high seas.” (Japanese). “The frog mounted on a clod said he had seen Kashmir.” (Indian). “He that imagines he hath knowledge enough hath none.” “He that knows least commonly presumes most.” (English). “Who knows nothing doubts nothing.” (English, French).

    If you say “Let it go” the snake will be angry; if you say “Hold it” the frog will be angry. (Telugu).
    “He is not born who can please everybody.” (Danish). “He labours in vain who tries to please everybody.” “Jupiter himself cannot please everybody.” (Latin). “He must rise betimes that would please everybody.” (French, Danish, English, Dutch). “He that would please all and himself too undertakes what he cannot do.” “No dish pleases all palates alike.” (English). “One cannot please everybody and one’s father.” (French).
    “Not even Jove can please all, whether he rains or does not rain.”—Theognis.

    “I have forgotten thy name” is better than “I know thee not.” (Wolof—West African).

    In saying “I would be enfranchised from bondage,” he falls into servitude. (Osmanli).

    “It would be something to one man; but for two, it is but a small portion,” as Alexander said of the world. (Gaelic).
    The reference is to Alexander the Great.

    “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet,” said the cock to the horse. (English).

    “Mair haste the waur speed,” quo’ the wee tailor to the lang thread. (Scotch).

    “Mair whistle than woo’,” quo’ the souter when he sheared the sow. (Scotch).
    See Proverbs Suggested by the Bible: “Great cry and little wool.”
    The first part of this proverb is found in nearly all languages.
    “Loud cackling, little egg.” “Great noise and little hurt.” (Gaelic). “Great boaster, little doer.” (English, French). “‘Great cry and little wool,’ as the fellow said when he shore his hogs.” “‘Great cry and little wool,’ quoth the devil, when he sheared his hogs.” (English). “‘Great cry and little wool,’ as the man said who shaved the sow.” (Italian). “‘Great cry and little wool,’ said the fool, when he sheared his hogs.” (German, Dutch).
    An interesting variant of this proverb is found in two other Scotch sayings: The Scotch farmer or goadsman in olden times sought to guide and incite his oxen to harder and steadier work by whistling to them, which was often more of an encouragement to the man than to his beasts, and soon gave rise to the proverbs: “Muckle whistlin’ for little red lan’,” and “There’s mair whistling wi’ you than good red land,” indicating that whistling was one thing and good turned up and well ploughed land another.

    Mancius said, “Eating and drinking men are despised by their fellow men because they pamper what is little and lose what is great.” (Chinese).
    A phrase used in condemnation of gluttony.

    “Mony a thing’s made for the penny,” as the auld wife said when she saw the plack man. (Scotch).
    Sometimes the world “black” is used for “plack,” thus making the proverb meaningless.
    The plack was a Scotch coin extensively used during the fifteenth century and worth about two-thirds of a cent (U.S.). Thus a man without money was called plackless.

  • “Ye Scots, wha wish auld Scotland well,
  • Ye chief, to you my tale I tell,
  • Poor plackless devils like mysel’,
  • It sets you ill,
  • Wi’ bitter, dearthfu’ wines to mell,
  • Or foreign gill.”
  • Robert Burns.
  • The plack man was the vender of inexpensive trinkets or catchpenny articles as they would be called in England and America.

    “Muckle din about ane,” as the deil said when he stole the collier. (Scotch).

    Nwariwa stands with clustering fruit and says, “An orphan is a slave.” (Efik—West African).
    Even the trees pity the orphan because of his helpless and dependent condition.

    “Onything sets a gude face,” quo’ the monkey wi’ the mirtch on. (Scotch).

    “Rejoice, bucks,” quo’ Brodie, when he shot at the buryin’ and thought it was a weddin’. (Scotch).

    “So on and accordingly,” quo’ Willie Baird’s doggie. (Scotch).

    “Soor plooms,” quo’ the tod when he couldna climb the tree. (Scotch).
    Tod, i.e., a fox.
    This is a variation of the familiar English proverb—“‘The grapes are sour,’ when he could not reach them,” which was suggested by Æsop’s fable.
    It appears in many forms and is found in most of the modern languages.
    “The fox, when he cannot reach the grapes, says they are not ripe.” “‘Fie upon heps,’ quoth the fox, because he could not reach them.” (English). “The fox says of the mulberries when he cannot get them: ‘they are not good at all.’” (French).
    “A hungry fox saw some fine bunches of grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air; but it was all in vain for they were just out of reach, so he gave up trying and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking ‘I thought those grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.’”—Æsop.

    The baboon says, “If you put something into my mouth, then I will produce a good word, and tell you.” (Oji—West African).
    Putting into the mouth indicates the gift of food.
    This is a selfish proverb teaching that men do not help each other without being compensated. If you pay me I will give you advice.
    The West Africans are fond of attributing speech to animals. As, for example, In the Ashante Empire inhabited by two million people, such sayings as these are often repeated: “Saith the fly, ‘What is left behind is a great deal,’” referring to the fly’s trimming itself with its hind legs, and used as an exhortation to continued labour. “The Krontromfi says, ‘A strong man dies only from his chest being hurt,’” referring to the chimpanzee and applied to strong men who are conscious of their power and proud of their ability to defend themselves, the chest being regarded as the seat of life. “The baboon says, ‘My charm is in my eye,’” alluding to the self-reliance of brave men. “The hog says, ‘It is not my mouth! It is not my mouth!’ but still it is his mouth.” The hog ruined the plantation and then denies his guilt, so it is with the man who commits a crime and disclaims any responsibility. “The chameleon says ‘Speed is good and slowness is good,’” indicating that there is a time for rapid movement and a time for deliberate action. “The tortoise says, ‘A man must not be ashamed to run away.’” He must not be ashamed to retreat when retreat is advisable. The tortoise is proverbially the slowest of animals. “The goat says, ‘Where much blood is, feasting goes on,’” corresponding to the Biblical proverb found in Matthew xxiv:28. “The cock says, ‘Suppose enemies only; I should have crowed in the night, and should have been killed.’” He who desires to injure an enemy will easily find a pretext. The crowing of a cock at night is a bad omen. “The antelope says, ‘When you eat without being tired, it has no relish.’” The antelope being an active animal thinks that fatigue is necessary to the enjoyment of food. Exercise gives a man an appetite.
    In the eastern district of the Gold Coast, inhabited by one hundred thousand people, the following phrases are used: “The partridge says, ‘He who kills me does not grieve me, as he who plucks my feathers.’” “The cat says, ‘Stretching is sweet,’ wherefore it does not buy a slave,” because slaves are a worry to their masters. “The young wild hog asked its mother, ‘Mamma, what are the warts on thy face?’ She replied, ‘By-and-by thou wilt have seen it already.’” “The European pigeon says, ‘He who eats and gives to thee, for him thou quenchest the fire.’” “If the land-tortoise would say, ‘(It is) for hardness’ sake,’ people would take up pads upon the earth”—that is, if it depended on the opinion of the hard-shelled tortoise. “The Adum saith, ‘My eye be my fetish’”—the Adum being a monkey.
    Still farther east are two million people speaking the Yoruba language. Of them Mr. R. F. Burton says: “Having no ballads, no songs, and but few popular stories, their language abounds in ‘Owe,’ or proverbs, which are at once the ethics and the poetics of the people.” This district furnishes the following sayings: “The rat says he knows every day; but he does not know another day”—applied to improvident people. “The Okete says, ‘I understand a specific day, another day I do not understand.’” The Okete is a large rat. “The house rat said ‘I do not feel so much offended with the man who killed me, as with him who dashed me on the ground afterwards.’” “A large stone crushed a lizard. It said, ‘So he who is stronger than one treats one.’” “The Ehoro said, ‘I care for nobody but the archer.’” The Ehoro is a hare or rabbit. “‘I am perishing,’ cries the hare in the field; ‘I am a spendthrift!’ is the cry of the partridge on the barntop.” “The crow was going to Ibara; a breeze sprung up behind; ‘That will help me on famously,’ quoth the crow.”
    In the southern Niagara district, inhabited by about sixty thousand people, may be heard such phrases as these: “The rat says, ‘Put plenty of food in the trap, for he takes his neck and goes.’” He risks his neck. “Ikukpa says he sees no snare above; should he see one he should die.” The Ikukpa is a guinea-fowl. “The crab says he does not fight nor quarrel, but he will bear his back in the calabash.” He will be captured. “The Kere says, ‘Men must think of doing work as the time for work has come.’” The Kere is a bird that appears when clearing time on the plantations is at hand. “The chicken says the warmth of his mother’s body is better than milk.”
    The above proverbial expressions and explanations are given by R. F. Burton in his valuable book, Wit and Wisdom from West Africa, where most of the West African proverbs quoted elsewhere are to be found.

    “The five Pandavas they say are three, like the legs of a bed, but there are only two,” said he, showing one finger. (Telugu).
    This absurd saying is applied to a stupid accountant.

    The fool says, “My friend is meant, not I.” (Oji—West African).
    Thus the fool replies to the warning that is meant for his good and shows his foolishness.
    “Thine enemy saith, ‘Thou wishest my death.’” “Saith the liar, ‘My witness is an Akyem.’” (Accra—West African). “The calabash having saved them they say, ‘Let us cut it for a drinking cup’”—a proverb expressing base ingratitude. The gourd having saved them in famine is to be sacrificed to make a drinking cup. “The trader never confesses that he has sold all his goods, but when asked he will say, ‘Trade is a little better.’” Proverbs xx:14. (Yoruba—West African). “The yawner says he does not walk alone; if there be no one to follow him, the leaves of the trees will fall.” Spoken in the belief that yawning is infectious, and applied to one who being condemned to death seeks an opportunity to kill someone that he may not die alone. (Efik—West African).

    They invited the donkey to a wedding, “Either wood or water is wanted,” he said. (Osmanli).
    An inferior is not invited unless his services are required.

    The kettle reproached the kitchen spoon. “Thou Hackee,” he said; “Thou idle babbler.” (Arabian).
    See Bible Proverbs—New Testament: “Why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
    The Egyptian kitchen spoon to which reference is here made is cut out of wood.

    “The meal cheap and shoon dear,” quo’ the souter’s wife, “I’d like to hear.” (Scotch).

    “There’s an unco splutter,” quo’ the sow i’ the gutter. (Scotch).

    “There’s baith meat and music here,” quo’ the dog when he ate the piper’s bag. (Scotch).

    “There’s little to reck,” quo’ the knave to his neck. (Scotch).

    “There’s nae ill in a merry mind,” quo’ the wife when she whistled through the kirk. (Scotch).

    They gave a cucumber to the beggar. “I do not like it,” he said; “It is crooked.” (Osmanli).

    They say, “Go into a town to settle”; and they do not say, “Go into a town to boast.” (Oji—West African).
    Addressed to one who is about to change his place of residence. When you are settled in your new home it behooves you to identify yourself with the people and make their interests yours, rather than boast of your former position and influence.

    To him who is larger than thou art, say “I am a dwarf.” (Wolof—West African).
    Acknowledge the greatness of the man who is greater than thou art.

    Trouble does not say “Stop! I am come.” (Osmanli).

    “Twa heads are better than ane,” as the wife said when she and her dog gaed to the market. (Scotch).
    “Twa heads are better than ane, though they’re but sheep’s anes.” “Twa blacks winna mak ae white.” “Twa cats and ae mouse, twa mice in ae house, twa dogs and ae bane, ne’er will agree in ane.” “Twa fools in ae house are a pair ower mony.” “Twa gudes seldom meet—what’s gude for the plant is ill for the peat.” “Twa hands may do in ae dish, but ne’er in ae purse.” “Two hungry meltiths makes the third a glutton.” “Twa things ne’er be angry wi’—what ye can help and what ye canna.” “Twa words maun gang to that bargain.” “Twa to fight and ane to redd.” This proverb indicates the proper number of children in a family: two to quarrel with each other and a third to settle disputes. “Twa wolves may worry ae sheep.” “Twa hangings on ae widdy mak’s twa pair o’ shoon to the hangman, but only ae ploy to the people”—two executions on one gallows make two pair of shoes for the hangman, but only one merry meeting for the people. “Two heads may lie upon ae cod, and nane ken whaur the luck lies.” (Scotch).

    “Turn-about is fair play,” as the devil said to the smoke-jack. (Irish).

    “Unsicker, unstable,” quo’ the wave to the cable. (Scotch).
    “To be insecure is to be unsafe,” said the ocean wave when it beat against the cable.

    Until somebody says, “It is you,” there will be no quarrel in the mill. (Osmanli).

    “We hounds slew the hare,” quo’ the messan. (Scotch).
    The messan is a mongrel dog.
    “‘We hounds killed the hare,’ quoth the lap-dog.” (English).

    “Wha can help sickness,” quo’ the wife when she lay in the gutter. (Scotch).

    When you are not sleepy, you say, “I have no sleeping place.” (Oji—West African).
    But when you are sleepy you will be content to sleep anywhere.
    “Necessity seeks bread where it is to be found.” (German).

    Wind and sea combat. “This time,” said the ships, “we shall have the worst of it.” (Arabian).
    When there is contention for authority and power between political rivals, it is not the government so much as the people who suffer.

    With the mouth the Akparo proclaims its fat, crying, “Nothing but fat! Nothing but fat!” (Yoruba—West African).
    The Akparo is a partridge. The proverb is applied to anyone who is guilty of self-praise.