Fools rush in: proverbs in English (1)

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by Liz Walter

Proverbs may seem rather old-fashioned or strange but when I started thinking about writing this post, I was amazed to realize how many of them are in common use. They serve as a convenient shorthand for something that would often be more complicated to say in a different way. We frequently use them at the end of a conversation to sum up what has been said, and many of them are so familiar that we can omit part of the phrase and still understand what is meant.

Take the proverb in the title of this post, for example. Its full form is ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. The idea is that it is silly to become involved in a situation that you do not understand or are not equipped to deal with, and that a wiser person would hold back. It is easy to imagine a conversation about someone who has got into trouble by publicly expressing an opinion or interfering in a situation with unfortunate results being summed up with ‘Ah well, fools rush in …’.

This phrase is typical of proverbs in another way: they are often rather judgmental and moralistic. The usual idea is that they express a generally accepted truth that can provide us with moral guidance or offer an explanation for things that happen. For example, the proverb ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ is an instruction to maintain things in a good condition all the time because if we don’t, they will be much harder to repair in future. Similarly, a story about an older person failing to learn something new may be met with ‘You can’t teach old dogs new tricks’, meaning that as we age, we lose the ability to change and learn, and therefore this failure is normal and should have been expected.

Other common proverbs that give general advice are ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ (= you should take advantage of a favourable situation to do something you want to do), ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ (= don’t talk about a difficult subject if nobody is thinking about it any more) and ‘It’s no good crying over spilt milk’ (= you can’t do anything about a bad thing that has already happened).

Proverbs that state generally held beliefs, often as a response to or explanation for a situation, include ‘Blood is thicker than water’ (= people will always help and protect their own family more than other people), ‘Still waters run deep’ (= quiet people are often surprisingly interesting or passionate) and ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’ (= even if you give someone a good opportunity, they may not take it).

Next month I will write about some common proverbs that are used to warn, criticize, or comfort people.

32 thoughts on “Fools rush in: proverbs in English (1)

  1. tzxxnn

    Thank you Liz for this amazing article 🙂 And it’s funny that in Chinese there’s a direct equivalent of ‘Blood is thicker than water’!

    1. I am a well known actor from very well TV
      Show. Over the years I have developed some saying that sum up life for me. I’d like to think that some day people will ponder and converse over them.

      ONE OF MY FAVES: “We already Broke Bad! Now I’m just trying to Break Good..” RR


  2. Denis

    Another splendid bit of knowledge. Two thumbs up!
    By the way, one of my favourite proverbial quote says:

    ‘A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.’

    Would anyone possibly hazard a guess about its meaning? 🙂

    1. Clara

      I think that it means that sometimes you have to act in a different way than other people to achieve your goal. If you are sure of your aim, don’t worry about acting opposite everyone and go for it.

    2. nari

      I’m not sure about that, so here is just my guess. I think it means that leaders don’t need spotlights or admiration from the crowd but instead they focus on the task given to him. Is it right?

      1. Denis

        I love both guesses and I reckon you hit the nail on the head because not only should authentic leadership set a strong direction for others to see and follow, a genuine leader themself also ought to be fond of leading more than of being liked.

      2. Mchael Hogan

        I think these replies are hitting the nail on the thumb. ‘One concentrates on the task at hand’, nothing more. In this regard one might wonder why an orchestra conductor faces the orchestra but a bandleader faces the audience

      3. Denis

        I must take issue with you on that, Mchael. Much as I’d love to agree with you, I just can’t go along with your viewpoint so I beg to differ. It’s not that straightforward, I’m afraid.
        Have you ever thought why an orchestra needs a conductor and a band doesn’t?
        An orchestra comprises many more musicians than a band, who play many different instruments together. Unlike a band, it is indeed a much more multifaceted organism which needs a special lead during a performance. Moreover, a conductor, not playing any musical instrument at all during a performance compared to a bandleader, focuses entirely on the orchestra in order to ensure that its performance is cohesive and smooth. By comparison with a bandleader, who faces an audience and plays a musical instrument like the other musicians in his or her band or sings during a performance, a conductor doesn’t seek any attention from the audience. Instead, he turns his back on the audience and is all about leading his orchestra, which reasonably correlates with the aforementioned interpretations.
        Bear in mind that an orchestra and a band are like chalk and cheese and so are their ways of operation.
        As for your point about focusing on the matter in hand, needless to say that no matter what a performance is, the participant would give it as much attention as he or she possibly can. And it doesn’t really depend on whether the participant is a conductor, a bandleader or something else.
        Thus, it is you, Mchael, who hit your thumb on the nail rather than the nail on the head – not to put too fine a point on it. 🙂

        P.S. You might want to carry out some research on the meaning of the quote, by the way.

  3. Anwar Rasool

    Thank you Liz, it is a helpful article. Honestly, first time I understood and learn proverb so easily. I must appreciate your simple writing style.

  4. In Vietnam, we have proverbs like meaning ‘Blood is thicker than water’ . It is “One blood rather than three waters”. That is really absorbing because another language was used the blood in connection with the family

  5. I really like reading and quoting proverbs. The explanation given above is clear and easy to learn for those like to learn more about use of proverbs.

  6. Madeline Garbutt

    Oddly I have been thinking of a phrase my mom used to say when I was young, “ keep your nose clean!” and it seems as though this was said enough times that it stuck in my mind and recently crept back in.
    To me, that always meant stay out of trouble more or less, and for whatever context she was using it for at the time…..but since this COVID 19 Horror
    I have been keeping nose clean literally:) in hopes to keep nasal hair in maximum working order, in hopes that they will catch micro invaders in the act……anything is better than nothing
    Just my thoughts

  7. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you, Liz! I always enjoy reading your posts. It’s extemely interesting to compare English and Russian proverbs! There are quite a number of them that have similar meanings. But the proverb “Still waters run deep” has absolutely negative meaning in Russian, though the translation is the same.

    1. Denis

      Yes, but we say it in a bit of a different way, which makes it negative.
      A word-for-word translation says ‘Still waters are inhabited by devils’ or, in a more English-natural way, I’d say: ‘Devils live in still waters,’ which means that a person who seems to be quiet or shy may surprise you by behaving very badly.

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