Proverbs Do they make sense anymore?

Is the morning hour perhaps just unhealthy?
Is the morning hour perhaps just unhealthy? | Photo: maxxyustas © 123RF

In his book “Morgenstund ist ungesund”, author and journalist Walter Schmidt shows us how many of our common proverbs are not as wise as they sound. So why do we use them at all?

“Better to bend than to break”, “Time heals all wounds”, “Don't sing your own praises”... There are no less than 250,000 proverbs in the Deutsche Sprichwörter-Lexikon, a definitive volume of German proverbs compiled by Karl Friedrich Wilhem Wander in the 19th century. Surely nobody has ever been able to recall or use that many of them, but University of Vermont German Studies professor and language researcher Wolfgang Mieder still thinks proverbs play an important role in daily speech.

Witty sayings instead of wise insights

“Each of us likely knows 100, 200 or even 300 of these short, ready-made phrases, many of which we use in everyday conversations. But the media, politicians, writers and artists use them all the time,” says the linguistics expert. “Sometimes we don't even notice it and say something like, 'Like my grandmother used to say', to refer to the proverbial nature of the point we are trying to make. The purpose in that case is to quickly and directly allude to some worldly wisdom passed down through common experience and observation.”

“For example, when we are at a loss for a bit of parental wisdom with our kids, these types of impromptu sayings sometimes help because we don't necessarily have the insight ourselves or it doesn't occur to us in that particular moment,” says Schmidt. The author and journalist wanted to know how much real wisdom is actually behind the proverbs we use, so he took a selection of German sayings and talked with doctors, psychologists, lawyers, teachers, sleep researchers and age experts to find out. The results of his study are now published in the book Morgenstund is ungesund. Unsere Sprichwörter auf dem Prüfstand. The first part of the title is a sarcastic play on the phrase “Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund”, roughly comparable to “The early bird gets the worm”.

At what age are people at their highest levels of intelligence?

Walter Schmidt Walter Schmidt | Photo: Mia Schweichel Walter Schmidt Photo: Mia SchweichelSchmidt makes it clear here, for example, that gamblers and workaholics only very seldom learn from their mistakes and that time doesn't necessarily heal wounds for people who have experienced emotional trauma. While the book mostly takes a humorous look at quite commonly known subject matter, it occasionally also provides some surprising insights such as: Age really can't keep you from being a fool (“There is no fool like an old fool”) and in fact scientists have shown that we are smartest in our third decade of life, not in our eighth. Regarding those later years, Schmidt quotes psychologist Ursula Staudinger, who claims wisdom only comes to those who, “Over the course of a lifetime are not afraid of facing up to painful experiences and doing whatever is in their power to overcome them.”

After writing the book, Schmidt is convinced that, “As a rule, proverbs made sense when they were created. They don't always still apply, though, because the world has changed and because education and brain research have proven some of those so-called wisdoms wrong. On the other hand, some of them have never been more applicable. The proverb, 'A rolling stone gathers no moss', for example, has been scientifically confirmed by health experts.”

Alienated wisdom

Professor Mieder is of the opinion that the individual proverbs are not always true or false. Instead, one needs to look more closely at the individuals who utter them and decide whether the saying actually applies to the context at hand. Researchers continuously hear the prejudice that proverbs have no place in today's world. Meider feels that, “There is this concept that says everything has to be reinvented in the language now, but of course we still use these set phrases in everyday speech. If you look at the advertising industry, for example, you could even say that short, universal, easily repeated formulas are particularly popular these days.” On the other hand, some sayings may lose their meaning over time because the vocabulary is no longer as common or because the inherent statement is no longer seen as contemporary.

The book by Walter Schmitdt. The book by Walter Schmitdt. | Photo: © rororo Still, every era brings its own sayings with it. “There used to be proverbs about the shoemaker, for example, “Cobbler, stick to your last”. Today computer specialists are making up their own, like “Garbage in, garbage out”. The media also loves literal translations of English sayings in German, like “Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm” (“The early bird catches the worm”) or “Ein Bild sagt mehr als tausend Worte” (“A picture says more than a thousand words”). “On top of that we have sayings that are not only wise in their content but also used in humorous, sarcastic or witty ways. “It has always been like that. But we can see that people increasingly manipulate, parody or alter prevalent forms of speech to suit their needs,” says Mieder. “Journalists use catchy sayings all the time in headlines to pique reader interest so they read the whole text." Walter Schmidt is no exception with the title of his book.

Walter Schmidt:
Morgenstund ist ungesund. Unsere Sprichwörter auf dem Prüfstand. (Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2012)