British Studies Web Pages



Proverbs and Sayings in Europe

by Beatrice Dragomir, Romania, Imre Szabo Hungary and Jan Muniak,  Poland

Pre-reading activities:

  • Which is your favourite proverb/ saying?
  • Do you know any proverb which has equivalent meaning in other languages?
  • Do you often use proverbs/ sayings when you talk?

Have you ever thought what is hidden in a proverb or a saying? It is definitely the essence of our oral heritage that reflects the spirit of our ancestors, all their memories and beliefs wisely worded.

With every proverb which is popular and worldwide known, Europeans find a powerful and meaningful commonsense that ties them together and makes them even stronger in the process of shaping new Europe. When saying that “All roads lead to Rome”, people, no matter if it is the English, the Romanians, the Polish, the Hungarians, or any other nationality will get its exact meaning, since we all somehow share the same cultural background and we are connected to the history of the Roman Empire.

What is even more important is that many of the proverbs have a Latin etymology. For instance, the English proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” has its roots in the Latin phrase “Ad praesens ova cras pullis sunt meliora” or “Still waters run deep” in the Latin one “Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi”.

If you want to find more about the influence of Latin on English proverbs or sayings, try the link:

Apart from these, nations are united by the power of the biblical wisdom, e.g. the English proverb “A leopard cannot change its spots” extracts its meaning from the Bible (the Book of Jeremiah), which sometimes developed into distinct proverbs; or by the strong mythological input e.g. the proverb “Running from Charybdis, he rushed upon Scylla” contains the Greek mythological figures (of the two monsters who were said to be threatening passing ships) into our folklore.

On the other hand, our common oral heritage has been continuously reshaped since its components are very dynamic in the way they are transmitted, but the core of the meanings remains the same. This is what happens with some of the proverbs nowadays. There is a common meaning hidden in each proverb, but the way it is worded differs from nationality to nationality in the way that they want to make it unique and self preserving.

Different versions of the same proverb or saying were mostly influenced by geographical symbols, or social and cultural background. The English saying “to carry coals to Newcastle” carries no meaning for a Hungarian, because Newcastle is not a representative landmark for Hungary. Instead, a Hungarian would rather say: “to take water into the Danube”, because the river is an important geographical symbol for his country.

In the same way, if English people say “to take French leave”, Romanians or Polish say “to take English leave” because they associate the English people rather than the French ones with this sort of behavior. Such perceptions of the other make us aware of our self, because, making evident who we are, involves more than just language or nationality, it also involves culture, folklore and many other things. In this sense I can say that a proverb can make nations stick together under the same big construct which is European culture, but at the same time it highlights the uniqueness of every country’s heritage.

Post-reading activity

  • Consider Lord Russell’s definition of a proverb (“One man’s wit and all men’s wisdom”) and try to comment upon it, referring to the article you have just read.

Here is a list of activities on proverbs you may want to try out:

Find here some useful links for the topic:

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