“The genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs”
-- Francis Bacon, 1971
A few days ago I was talking to my father about my late grandfather, Teo. I wanted to remember his most used proverb, the one he might say when giving me advice. Then, my father gave me the answer: “How many pairs can three flies make?” I asked him the meaning of such a riddle, but my father did not know so we left the matter there. This mystery, though, is still haunting me. What could be the meaning behind my grandfather’s words?
The idea of gaining inspiration or passing knowledge through phrases is not new. Usually, those phrases are catchy: they might contain wordplays, they are short and easy to remember, and, in some cases, they include a hint of humour. Depending on the length and purpose we can identify those phrases as sayings or proverbs.
A saying is a familiar expression repeated in our daily life. That expression was said in the past and repeated through the years, becoming popular in the place where we reside. They are short and direct messages: a metaphor, a figure of speech that contains a hidden value and wisdom. “Time flies”, or, it is “a piece of cake” are some examples of popular sayings.
When pigs fly, [Illustration]
On the other hand, a proverb is a saying, commonly known by the public, that contains a piece of advice or truth of universal value. These types of statements are used to express feelings or glorify values. For example, loyalty, friendship, honesty and anything that can serve as moral conduct guidelines. That is why it is common to find proverbs related to religion or belief systems that use them as a didactic tool.
Japanese have the reputation of sharing their wisdom and practices by using proverbs. Their knowledge comes from deep observations about nature, life, and people. Proverbs and thoughts are part of their culture, old traditions and a reflection of their values. For example, “Fall seven times, get up eight” speaks about the importance of persevering, understanding that life might present many falls.
Japanese proverb, by Disha Bhanot [Illustration]
A Little Bird Told Me...
It is uncertain when this method of passing down information started, and it is unclear when was the first time that was recorded. Each country, culture, even families have their favorite ones. They become so commonly used and popular that, sometimes, we do not need to finish the whole sentence to know how the phrase will end.
This is not just a local matter. There are many proverbs and sayings that have not only survived the passage of time but also the distance. Many countries use the same sayings and proverbs, maintaining the wording -- sometimes it would be some minimal idiomatic variances-- and even when translated, their meaning remains the same: “Two heads are better than one” can also be known as “Two heads think more than one.”
Although, some do change their meaning depending on the culture or place that uses them. While learning English, the Chinese historian Cheng Pei-kai observed how idiosyncrasy influences the construction and understanding of the sayings.
He analyzed the proverb "No bees, no honey; no work, no money", and discovered that “in contrast to the Chinese, Caucasians constructed metaphors out of things familiar to them (...) When the Chinese talk about bees, I reckon the first thing that comes to mind is not manual labour, but the pollination of flowers in the production of honey” (Pei-kai, 2020). Chen Pei-kai said the emphasis is placed on the flower and all the things that might represent it, such as beauty, or attracting butterflies, bees, or the opposite sex. Then, the Chinese will not associate bees with working hard but attracting others.
“Proverbs and sayings are not just traditional phrases handed down from generation to generation (...) Dissected, they reveal a culture’s biases, thoughts and way of life. Understanding a country’s proverbs is understanding the people that use them.”
-- Cheng Pei-kai, 2020
Each of us sees and experiences the world in a unique manner. That same idea is what led us to create and apply those ‘wisdom phrases’, making them more attractive and understandable for our environment.
In All Shapes and Sizes
Sayings and proverbs have proof to be timeless. For centuries, and despite the regional diversities, they have carried on and embodied messages of truth. For giving warnings, advice, common sense, or teaching lessons, they usually express the human experience, becoming part of people's heritage.
Each of them has been passed on through generations, sometimes unnoticed, as daily phrases we use to communicate to each other. Although, we do not usually stop to think about their meanings; the hidden gift of wisdom they carried enters directly to us. Then, we keep using them in times of need or just to express ourselves in a more entertaining way.
Sayings and proverbs are part of our oral tradition, but we can also find them in literature classics, like in William Shakespeare's plays or Miguel de Cervantes' novels. They can also come in the form of a joke or a short tale. The shape will not affect their impact on our lives or the way we perceive the world that surrounds us.
So, going back to where we started, how many pairs can three flies make? I conducted a little research, and many of the answers were about the number of pairs; they were from six to one and a half, to all the pairs of legs and wings you could count. But I was sure that it was something else. Luckily, I found the meaning of the saying: it was used to provoke a fight or to respond aggressively to an offense “I will teach you a lesson.” I have to be honest, I did not feel good about that. Why did my grandfather say that to my father?
Then, I had a revelation. I remembered how my grandfather usually threw random quotes and phrases in the middle of our conversations. His face always glowed in joy when I asked what it meant, and tried to make sense of what I was listening to. Now I understand that the answer was never the meaning, but the process of thought that I put into finding it; the experience we had while telling me the origin. The treasure was the love we shared in our quest for answers, and the hidden wisdom to me was learning to always stay curious.
So, now let’s take this reading journey as an invitation: every time we hear a proverb, or catch ourselves using a saying, take a few minutes to think about its meaning. It might be just an expression but who knows, as the old Chinese proverb says: “learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”
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