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.