IF the chief object of
definition is to furnish information, there is no need to define a
proverb, since everybody knows what it is. This conclusion is so far
satisfactory that it gives relief from the difficult, if not impossible,
task of framing such a logical definition of a proverb as will receive
general assent. The task has been tried, but never yet successfully
achieved. In this respect proverbs are like poetry; both are at once
generally recognised when genuine, but their strictly essential
qualities have never yet been precisely determined. In the absence of
definition, descriptions of the proverb abound. One writer pleasantly
observes that there are not more proverbs than there are attempted
definitions of them. Some of these attempted definitions, or
descriptions, are expressed so epigrammatically, or come so near the
general conception of the thing they describe, as to be worth
remembering. The popular idea of a proverb is perhaps met by
representing it as a short saying that easily and pithily, or at least
picturesquely, expresses some universally recognised and generally
applicable truth. It is the revelation of a diamond which flashes truth
from many facets. The late Earl Russell’s description puts the popular
idea with a happiness that has never been quite matched. He describes a
proverb as 'The wisdom of many and the wit of one.' Bacon’s description
is not so neat but more philosophical—‘Proverbs' he says, 'preserve the
genius, wit, and spirit of a nation/ There can be no doubt that the
character of a nation is strongly written in its proverbs, whether they
have been invented or adopted. Of foreign descriptions of the proverb,
that of Cervantes, the most famous literary celebrity of a country which
may be regarded as the very home of the proverb, is too characteristic
of that great author not to be quoted—'It is' he says, ‘the short
expression of a long experience'.
All thoughtfully taciturn
people, whose motive in speech is to come to the point, and not to set
out at all if there is no point, naturally fall into a habit of framing
proverbs, or using those that have been so framed as to answer their
purpose. Hence it is that the Spaniards, who are by nature grave,
dignified, and decorous, converse so largely in a language which may be
described as silence relieved by oracular utterances that rather suggest
thought than encourage speech. Hence also that habitual resort to the
authority and economy of the proverb which is characteristic of the
rural, and especially the pastoral, population of our own country.
Talking becomes an easy art, often a mere trick, in busy societies,
involving in the majority of cases little outlay of energy in either
brain or tongue ; but in the solitary areas of the country, in the
ploughing field, and especially on the pasture hill, the means of
acquiring the use of a quick and copious phraseology are scarcely to be
had, and it is not without mental and physical effort as well, in the
representation and enunciation of their ideas, that rustics can carry on
a conversation. It is easier for them to think than to speak, and it is
to their credit that thought with them preponderates over speech. The
result is their formulation of the commoner experiences of life into
proverbs or proverblike expressions, and their free use of the saws and
maxims which tradition has sanctioned, and which time has invested with
an authority little inferior to that of Scripture. By means of these
portable propositions, capable as they are of daily use and various
application, they save themselves the trouble of searching for and
arranging unnecessary words, and have thus, as almost their only effort,
in serious conversation among themselves, the free exercise of the
judgment in the selection of that particular proverb from their store
which will give precision and force to their meaning when their own
proper words feebly convey an incomplete idea. Proverbs are, in short,
the bank-notes of speech, conveying much value in small compass, current
all over the country districts, and credited wherever they come.
A language which, though
still in active use, has reached the stage beyond which, for whatever
reason, there is no further external development—a stage at which the
vernacular of Scotland seems to have arrived—is peculiarly liable to run
into such crystallised forms, and to develop internally into a
multiplicity of such idioms as border on the province of proverb. A
language in this stage, if it has proved its capabilities by a worthy
literature, is permanently classical. Composition in it can hardly be
original ; it can be little more than a clever but still mechanical
combination of approved phrases. Latin composition in our schools and
colleges is nothing more than this: at best it is a patchwork or mosaic
of idioms, and favourite quotations, and such turns of expression as one
finds in their original beauty in Cicero, Livy, and Caesar. There has
been little literary development of the Scottish language, except on the
prose side, since the time of Burns. Wilson, in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae,’
has occasionally shown with triumphant success the capacity of a long
sentence in the Scottish tongue for the conveyance of elaborate
description, subtle sentiment, and even abstruse metaphysical thought;
but a Scottish epic, or even a seriously descriptive poem of real
originality and commanding force, longer than the ‘Cottar’s Saturday
Night' — ‘Kilmeny' perhaps, excepted—has not been written, and the time
for the production of such a poem is past. The language has reached its
limits. It is in the stage when only idioms, and suchlike idiomatic
expressions as proverbs and popularly - expressed poetical sentiments
survive in the speech of the people. The rest falls into disuse, and
ultimately into oblivion.
Probably the proverbs,
and the songs, with certain favourite and readily quotable passages from
Burns, will be the longest-lived and last portions of the wreck of the
Scottish language. Of these, at the present day, where Lowland Scotch is
yet spoken, the proverbs are not the least vital. They are very well
worthy of preservation for several reasons. First and foremost, they
deserve to be perpetuated for the practical wisdom they condense, fit
for ‘human nature’s daily food,’ quite independently of their Scottish
origin. Then they discover those traits of character which are
distinctive of the Scottish nation, and by which —presenting as they do
the springs which regulated the national conduct—the nation may be
judged. And, in the third place, they give valuable historical glimpses,
in an incidental and therefore trustworthy way, of the manners and
customs of our national ancestry.
There may be some three
or four thousand native or naturalised Scottish proverbs in all, and if,
as has been calculated, the European world contains an aggregate of
between thirty and forty thousand, Scotland, with her tenth-part of the
sum total, has no reason to be ashamed of her contribution to the
general store. The Scottish proverbs may be variously classified. A very
large proportion of them, to judge from the imagery they employ, are of
rural growth, and of these again many are unmistakably of domestic
origin. Some have for their object the inculcation of the social
virtues. . Some are philosophical, and the philosophy is often presented
in the form of a paradox. Some are humorous or sarcastic revelations of
character. Some encourage thrift. Some encourage enterprise; and so on.
It is not proposed in this paper to do more than just look at a sample,
selecting however, only such as I have recently heard in common use
among country folk.
They’ve ill will to ca’,
that lets the gad fa’.
The duty of the goadsman,
it may be pointed out, was simply to urge forward the oxen while the
ploughman guided the plough in the furrow. Burns, it may be remembered,
in the enumeration of his farm servants for the surveyor of taxes, wrote
to the astonished official:—
‘For men, I’ve three
Run deils for rantin’ an’ for noise;
A gaudsman ane, a thresher t’other,
Wee Davoc hauds the nowte in fother.’
But in Burns’s day horses
had mostly1 superseded oxen for ploughing, and
gaudsman ’ had become equivalent to ploughmen.
An ill-gated coo had aye
This means that it is
fortunate that those who are disposed to do mischief are usually denied
the means to do much.
The king’s errand may come
in the cadger’s gate.
That is, the least likely
people may sometime have it in their power to aid or to injure you.
Corn’s no’ for staigs.
It is too expensive
provender for colts, which are well enough at pasture.
I'll no keep a dog an*
If folk counted a* cost (risk) they would never put plough i’ grund.
The maister’s foot's the best muck (manure).
The last of these refers
to thorough supervision by the farmer himself if he would have his farm
Like's an ill (indefinite)
mark amang ither folk's sheep.
An ill (unskilful) shearer never had a gude hyuck.
The reaper puts the blame
on his sickle.
A fou man an' a fastin'
horse mak' haste hame.
The antithesis here is
less complete than the words seem to convey.
Dinna meddle wi' the deil
nor wi' the laird's bairns.
All these proverbs are
redolent of rural life and rustic occupations.
The following are
illustrative chiefly of domestic life.
A wife's ae dochter an’ a
cottar's ae coo—the ane's never weel, and the ither's never fou.
The foot at the cradle an' the hand at the reel is a sign o' a woman
that means to do weel.
The thrift o’ you, and a dog's woo, would mak* a braw wab.
The cloth would simply be
invisible, like the King’s new clothes, in Hans Andersen’s famous story.
Naething’s to be dune in
haste but the grippm* o’ fleas.
Mair haste, waur speed, quoth the wee tailor to the lang thread.
He should sit still that has riven breeks.
Every craw thinks its ain bird whitest.
He has cowpit (emptied) the meikle pat into the little.
That is, he has made a
poor exchange or a bad calculation who, etc.
A good ‘ social ’ proverb
Tell the bourd but not the
That is, tell the joke if
it is worth retailing, but reveal no names among friends.
Of ‘character’ proverbs
here are half-a-dozen,—
They speak o’ my drinking
but ne’er think o’ my drouth.
Send him to the sea, he’ll no get saut-water.
He’ll tell’t to nae mair than he meets.
Wha can help sickness? quoth the drucken wife, as she lay in the gutter.
His eggs ha’e a’ twa yolks.
They’re far ahint that canna follow.
And here are a few
God help great folk, the
puir can beg.
He has a guid judgment that doesna lippen to his ain.
He has come to gude by misguidin’.
He that gets forgets; he that wants thinks on.
Thrift is an outstanding
feature of the Scottish national character. With the kindred virtues of
caution, prudence, and patience, it has been so long in general practice
as to have become a kind of second nature to the nation. They are
probably right who trace it to its origin in the poverty which, before
the Union, was the chronic condition of nearly all ranks of the
community, and which of necessity demanded a careful economy of small
means for the bare benefit of existence. Happier times came, when there
was no longer absolute need for its practice ; but it continued as a
habit, and here and there discovered a tendency to parsimony. Hence it
is that while some foreign writers, in estimating the national
character, give the Scots credit for a wise economy, others reproach
them with the practice of an excessive frugality. As Mr Punch puts
it,—‘They keep the Sawbath, and everything else they can lay their hands
If the proverbs of a
country reveal the character of its people—and few will doubt that they
do—this feature of the Scottish character should be reflected in the
national proverbs. As a matter of fact, the subject of a very large
proportion of these proverbs is the doctrine of thrift, and the best
means of attaining it Take the following specimens:—
A bit is aften better
gi’en thar Teaten.
In this example, it must
be owned, hospitality is advised on prudential grounds.
It’s ill brocht but,
that’s no’ there ben.
This reminds one of the
English truism [that you cannot both eat your cake and have it. It is
scarcely necessary to say that, in the familiar cottage arrangement of a
but and a ben, the but contained only what was for daily or immediate
use, while the ben held the luxuries and the savings.
A broken kebbuck (cheese)
gangs quick dune.
This is the converse of a
well-known economical maxim, and might be rendered,—
Take care o’ the pound and
it will take care of its pence.
He that has twa hoards will get a third.
Put twa pennies in a
purse, and they will creep thegither,
should recall the remark
of Shylock in the play,—
‘Is your money ewes and
rams?' asks the merchant; to which the Jew replies, ‘I cannot tell—I
make it breed as fast'.
They ha’e need o’ a canny
cook that ha’e but ae egg for their dinner.
Along with this may be
taken the companion proverb,—
Better a bite for
breakfast than want a’ day.
Deal sma’ and serve a*
is a good specimen of a
rhyming proverb. Proverbs were originally meant for the ear and the
memory, and were therefore furnished with such mutually suggestive terms
as rhyme and alliteration supply. Some one has fancifully but aptly
compared rhyme to wings, upon which truths may fly from mind to mind ;
and alliteration to claws and talons, by which they may cling securely
wherever they come.
A handfu’ o’ trade is
worth a gowpen (two open handfuls) of gowd.
That is so, because trade
is like a spring from which there is a continuous stream, while a sum of
money not adventured in business is like water in a barrel—there is no
more when it’s done.
Get your rock and spindle,
God will send tow;
along with which may be
What better is the house
though the daw rises sune.
The former clearly means
that the opportunity comes to those who are ready to use it; the latter
seems to signify that the opportunity is of no value unless it is, as Dr
Watts would say, improved. A man may rise early and have a long day
before him, but he must do more than chatter—he must ‘ put to ’ his hand
and work—if he would prosper. To these might be added,—
A gaun (going) foot gets
aye gate aneuch,
that is, there is always
plenty to do if a man is willing and in the way of it; and
The drucken man gets the
which seems to say,
though by means of a metaphor which our teetotal brethren will hardly
admire, that willingness to accept a favour is often the condition of
getting it. The drinker never refuses a dram.
Dinna sell your customer
wi* your goods.
He won’t return if once
taken advantage of.
Broken bread maks haill
Better a clout on than a hole oot,—
but, of course, best of
all is whole cloth. This thrifty proverb recalls the delightful domestic
picture of ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night’—
‘The mother wi* her needle
an’ her shears
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel’s the new.’
Better rue sit, than rue flit.
In the words of
‘Rather bear the ills we
Than fly to others that we know not of.*
An unce o’ mother wit is
worth a pund o’ clergy. There is nothing in this comparison odious to
the ‘clergy,’ as we understand the term. As a rule, the clergy are let
alone by the proverbial sayings of Scotland ; like the ‘ corbies,’ they
are acknowledged to be a shot richt kittle (right difficult). The
proverb means that a little common-sense is of more practical value than
a load of learned lumber ; ‘ clergy * here meaning book-learning, or
knowledge as distinct from wisdom. There is no depreciation of the
benefits of a good education in the proverb; Scotland has always been
alive to those benefits.
A bread hoose ne’er
This proverb means that
good servants remain where they are well fed, and generally well
treated. The economical value of the advice which is implied in the
proverb is apparent.
Double drinks are gude for
that is, they are
effective in creating drouth: they are therefore false economy. This
proverb limits the application of the preceding one in the direction of
When the barn’s fu', ye
may thresh afore the door.
Dear bocht and far socht—that’s meat for ladies.
Ye needna gang wi’ the rake after the besom.
And many others.
Another feature of the
national character is strongly presented in the Scottish proverbs—
namely, that sturdy independence which refuses respect to rank unless
rank is accompanied by sterling worth,—which, in short, judges men by
their manhood. It is the feeling which Burns has hit off so admirably in
the well-known lines,—
The rank is but the
The man’s the gowd for a' that.
The following two or
three specimens will suffice to illustrate this trait:—
As gude may haud the
stirrup as he that loups on.
Ye’re come o’ bluid?—sae’s a puddin’.
An owre croose kipg never reigned lang.
And, perhaps, in one
aspect of it,
I'll no’ lout sae laigh
(stoop so low) to lift sae little.
The Scots are credited
with a spirit of enterprise and perseverance which, under failure, finds
refuge in a philosophical patience that must not be mistaken for
contentment Illustrative of their enterprise and perseverance the
proverbs give us—
Aft ettle (try or aim),
Hankerin’ an’ hingin’ on’s a puir trade.
He that forecasts a’ perils will win nae worship.
A gangin’ foot’s aye gettin’.
A wicht (capable) man ne’er wanted a wappin.
Do your turn weel an’ nane will speer what time ye took;
A gude fallow ne’er tint
but at an ill fallow’s hand.
Illustrative of their
philosophical patience, we have—
Better be blythe wi’
little than sad wi’ naething.
Ye’ll win owre this trouble, an’ be waur aff.
Better a toom hoose nor an ill tenant.
Fling-at-the-gaud (kick at the pricks) was ne’er a wise ox.
Be thou weel, be thou wae, thou wilt not be aye sae.
There are many others.
This paper may be closed
with a few proverbs that refer to law courts and kirks.
Hame’s hame-like, quoth
the deil in the Court o’ Session.
Abundance o’ law’ll no’ brak it.
It’s an ill cause that lawyers think shame o’.
Ane o’ the Coort but nane o’ the Coonsel.
I may like the kirk an’ no ride on the riggin’.
The kirk’s meikle but ye may say mass i’ the end o’t.
The Lord gie us a gude conceit o’ oorsells, quoth the wife, an’ gaed
whustlin’ ben the kirk.