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The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs

The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs

by Charles Clay Doyle (Compiler), Wolfgang Mieder (Compiler), Fred R. Shapiro (Compiler)

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"You can't unring a bell." "It takes a village to raise a child." "Life is just a bowl of cherries." We sometimes think of proverbs as expressions of ancient wisdom, but in fact new proverbs are constantly arising. This unique volume is devoted exclusively to English-language proverbs that originated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The most complete


"You can't unring a bell." "It takes a village to raise a child." "Life is just a bowl of cherries." We sometimes think of proverbs as expressions of ancient wisdom, but in fact new proverbs are constantly arising. This unique volume is devoted exclusively to English-language proverbs that originated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The most complete and accurate such collection ever compiled, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs presents more than 1,400 individual proverbs gathered and researched with the help of electronic full-text databases not previously used for such a project.

Entries are organized alphabetically by key words, with information about the earliest datable appearance, origin, history, and meaning of each proverb. Mundane or sublime, serious or jocular, these memorable sayings represent virtually every aspect of the modern experience. Readers will find the book almost impossible to put down once opened; every page offers further proof of the immense vitality of proverbs and their colorful contributions to the oral traditions of today.

Editorial Reviews

The Chronicle of Higher Education - Ben Yagoda
“It’s a fabulous book, certainly the most enjoyable one I’ve read this year.”—Ben Yagoda, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca blog
Choice - Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding 2012 Title for Humanities within the Reference category.
Library Journal
With its focus on proverbs that originated since 1900, this rich collection of 1,400 sayings drawn from newspapers, songs, and films is the first to use recently digitized sources to provide more accurate attributions. Alphabetized by keyword with information about each proverb’s earliest datable appearance, origin, history, and meaning, the work is endlessly entertaining.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Yale University Press
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By Charles Clay Doyle Wolfgang Mieder Fred R. Shapiro


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13602-9

Chapter One


You can get straight (all) A's and still flunk life.

1980 Walker Percy, The Second Coming (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 93: "I didn't get a job. I didn't get married.... I didn't move on like I was supposed to. I made straight A's and flunked ordinary living." 1983 Robert Coles, "Alienated Youth and Humility for the Professions," in Preventing Adolescent Alienation, edited by L. Eugene Arnold (Lexington MA: D. C. Heath) 6: "The qualities of compassion, of self-respect, of disciplined behavior in a moral purpose— ... these capacities we must conclude do not necessarily come with education. As Walker Percy the American novelist put it, 'one can get all A's and flunk life.'" 1994 Peter Kreeft, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity) 316: "Jesus said, 'What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?' No one in history ever asked a more practical question. In other words, don't get all A's but flunk life." 1998 W. Jay Wood, Epistemology (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity) 67: "As Walker Percy writes, 'one can get straight A's in school and still flunk life.'" The attribution to Percy has been persistent.

Ability (Talent) can take you to the top, but character is what will keep you there.

1980 George W. Knight, Church Bulletin Bits, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Book House) 44 (in a collection of sayings): "Ability may get you to the top, but only character will keep you there" (the proverb is ambiguously titled "Character's Holding Power"). DAP 3(4): "Ability will enable a man to get to the top, but character will keep him from falling." In recent times, the expression is often attributed to the basketball coach John Wooden. Wooden eventually did use the proverb in print: "I believe ability can get you ... to the top, but it takes character to keep you there. A big part of character is self-discipline...."; 1997, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations (Lincolnwood IL: Contemporary) 99. Cf. "PUSH can get you there, but it takes character to stay there."

About is not close enough.

See "ALMOST is not good enough."

Absence is the mother of disillusion.

Champion (1938) 296 lists the saying as a Spanish proverb; it has been borrowed into English (and other languages). An interesting variant (perhaps arising from the nominal occurrence of disillusion as an uncommon substitute for disillusionment): 2007 Rodney Dale, Sayings Usual and Unusual (Ware UK: Wordsworth) 1 (in a list of sayings): "Absence is the mother of delusion." In light of the substitution of that psychological term delusion, we might compare this: 1913 Havelock Ellis, "Sexual Problems and Their Nervous and Mental Relations," in Modern Treatment of Nervous and Mental Diseases, edited by William Alanson White and Smith Ely Jelliffe (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger) 1: 115: "... [I]t is true that absence is 'the mother of ideal beauty,' and that many a lover thus frustrated cherishes the belief that he or she thus missed happiness in life." DAP 3(4).

Absence makes the heart go wander.

1908 Washington Post 18 Oct.: "It is the separations that make the trouble. Absence makes the heart go wander. Sometimes the necessity of an engagement takes the wife away." The proverb originated as an anti-proverb based on "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." DAP 3(6); Litovkina and Mieder (2006) 82.

Abuse it and lose it.

1985 Los Angeles Times 10 May: "Factwino was born in 1981 as a waitress who had the human frustration of not being able to respond to arguments she knew were wrong.... The motto then was, 'If you abuse it, you lose it.'" 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer 2 Mar. (quoting from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Inmate Handbook): "This [telephone use] is a privilege for your use and benefit. Use it wisely and enjoy it or abuse it and lose it." The proverb originated as an anti-proverb based on "Use it or lose it." Doyle (2009).

Accomplishment is a journey, not a destination.

See "SUCCESS is a journey, not a destination."

Act first, think later (afterward).

1965 Dorothy Westby-Gibson, Social Perspectives on Education (New York: Wiley) 76: "Most Americans, on the other hand, tend to value 'getting things done' or 'doing something' about a problem. Indeed, sometimes 'act first, think later' has appeared to be our cultural adage." Baldwin (1965) 131 lists the saying as a Pennsylvania proverb. DAP 6(2). Perhaps it originated as a rebuttal of the old proverb "Think, then act" or "Act first, think afterward, repent forever"—sayings that advise against hasty, ill-considered action. Cf. the older "Shoot first and ask questions later."

Act like you've been there before.

1984 Spokesman-Review [Spokane WA] 2 Feb.: "On a player who spikes the ball after a touchdown [football referee Jim Tunney says]: 'I don't like them either. I always tell the player, act like you've been there before.'" 1986 New York Times 7 Dec.: "'But I never spiked the ball in college,' he [football player Stacy Robinson] said, because my coach, Dan Morton, used to tell us, 'Act like you've been there before.'" 1990 Ed Rushlow, Get a Better Job (Princeton NJ: Peterson's Guides) 103: "A National Football League coach was quoted as saying to his team, 'I really don't care what kind of dance you guys do in the end zone. Just be sure you act like you've been there before.' The same is true when you're on the telephone [seeking to obtain an interview with a prospective employer]: you have to act like you've been there before."

Get your act together.

1972 New York Times 12 Apr. (ad for women's clothing): "Get your act together at Plaza 2." 1974 Los Angeles Times 1 Jan. (ad): "We know how you want to dress. So get your act together with these famous gotogethers." RHDP 108; Lighter (1994–) 1: 7–8.

There are no second acts.

1941 The saying probably entered oral tradition as a proverb from F. Scott Fitzgerald's posthumously published The Last Tycoon (the author died in 1940): "There are no second acts in American lives." YBQ F. Scott Fitzgerald (46).

Action (Activity, Work) is worry's worst enemy (is the best antidote for worry).

1930 Washington Post 20 Oct.: "Hard work is the best antidote to worry, and like most busy people, you are not a worrier" (in a prognostication for persons born on 20 Oct.). 1942 W. M. E., review of The Retarded Child at Home by Katharine Ecob (n.d.), American Journal of Mental Deficiency 46: 280: "Outline as many possible definite things the parents can do to help the child from day to day. Constructive action is a good antidote to worry." DAP 6(7).

Activity is worry's worst enemy.

See "ACTION is worry's worst enemy."

Don't advertise what (if) you cannot fulfill (deliver).

1919 Frederick Houk Law, Mastery of Speech (New York: Independent Corporation) 8: 12 (in a list of "business maxims"): "Don't advertise what you can't fulfil." 1929 E. V. Shepard, Correct Contract Bridge (Garden City NY: Doubleday, Doran) 52: "Never advertise what you cannot deliver. A pass denotes weakness; a bid indicates ability to fulfill contract, willingness to be assisted, and either one sure trick held or holdings justifying further contracting ..." (italics—and wording—as shown). DAP 9(1).

Free advice is worth (exactly) what you pay for it (Free advice is worth the price).

1913 Nathaniel C. Fowler, Handbook of Journalism (New York: Sully & Kleinteich) 194: "While much of free advice is worth just what is paid for it,—nothing,—the advice of competent persons should not be despised." DAP 10(16). The variant, "Free advice is worth the price" occasionally means something like the opposite: since there is no "cost" to receiving free advice, one might as well give consideration to such advice. 2004 Mark Everson, commissioner of Internal Revenue, addressing the Securities and Exchange Commission, States News Service 8 Nov.: "... [T]he non-profit sector does not need one-size-fits-all regulations imposed on it, so what to do? If I can offer some unsolicited advice—'free advice is worth the price'—I think you should take a measured and wise approach...."

Act (Be) your age.

1925 New Yorker 25, no. 32 (26 Sep.) 18: An illustration of a "suggested bookplate"—"Ex Libris Scott Fitzgerald" (just turned forty-six years old)—shows a tuxedoed man with a skull for a head, dancing spryly amid confetti and streamers, playing a saxophone; the motto at the top of the bookplate reads, "Be your age." 1928 Lida Larimore, Tarpaper Palace (New York: Grosset & Dunlap) 166: "Bantering remarks, fragments of conversation, the senseless patter of the 'crowd' struck her ears: 'Gentlemen prefer blondes' ... 'Who do you think I am, a big butter-and-egg man?' 'Knows her onions! You bet.' 'Did you ever hear that one about the old maid and—' 'Go on now. Act your age.'" 1932 J. Louis Kuethe, "Johns Hopkins Jargon," American Speech 7: 328 (in a glossary): "act your age—'don't be childish'; 'stop the foolishness.'" MP A44.

Act your age, not your IQ.

1995 Lisa Vice, Reckless Driver (New York: Dutton) 221: "'Oh, grow up why don't you?' That's all she ever says. That or 'act your age not your IQ.'" The proverb originated as an anti- proverb based on "Act your AGE."

Act your age, not your shoe size.

1967 Barbara Schoen, A Place and a Time (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell) 57: "'Why don't you act your age, not your shoe size?' said Paul. He made a disgusting face and ran out and slammed the door." 1981 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 Feb.: "The high school students put their feelings succinctly, when they made signs which urged the negotiators to 'act your age, not your shoe size.'" The proverb originated as an anti-proverb based on "Act your AGE."

Age (Old age) is a high price (too high a price) to pay for maturity (Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up).

1969 Tom Stoppard, interviewed in David Bailey and Peter Evans, Goodbye Baby & Amen (New York: Coward-McGann) 205: "... [I]t is a very immature thing to worry about one's sinking youth, but I don't care: I think age is a very high price to pay for maturity." 1970 Tom Stoppard, Where Are They Now (radio play), in Artist Descending a Staircase and Where Are They Now (London: Faber & Faber, 1973) 77: "... [E]verywhere I looked, in my mind, nothing was wrong. You never get that back when you grow up; it's a condition of maturity that everything is wrong all the time.... Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up" (italics as shown).

Age is just a number.

1957 James Beasley Simpson, ed., Best Quotes of '54, '55, '56 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell) 194 (attributing the saying to Bernard Baruch on his eighty-fifth birthday in 1955): "Age is only a number, a cipher for the records. A man can't retire his experience. He must use it." 1959 Sunday Herald [Bridgeport CT] 24 May: "I don't feel that age should be a deciding factor in anything. Age is just a number. What counts is how compatible you are."

Old age (Getting old) is better than the alternative (Old age sucks, but it's better than the alternative).

1960 Los Angeles Times 15 May (quoting Maurice Chevalier): "Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative." Cf. "LIFE sucks, but it's better than the alternative."

Old age is hell.

1952 Virginia Moore, The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1954) 424; Maud Gonne is being interviewed: "For ten years heart trouble had kept her immobile, she said. 'Old age is hell. So boring.'" Dundes and Pagter (1987) 194.

Old age is not for sissies.

1969 Eugene P. Bertin, "Ravelin's: Threads Detached from Texture," Pennsylvania School Journal 17: 546 (in a series of witty sayings commemorating Senior Citizen Month, May): "Old age is not for sissies." 1974 Mark H. Ingraham, My Purpose Holds (New York: Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association) 62 (in a series of remarks from interviews about retirement): "I like least the process of aging, living with 'ailing and aging flesh.' As some one has said, 'Old age is not for sissies.'" The proverb's origin is often attributed to the actress Bette Davis.

If you aim for it, you will miss it (you will lose it, you are turning away from it).

1998 Maxwell Craig, For God's Sake—Unity (Glasgow: Wild Goose) 163: "The philosopher Aristotle teaches that happiness is a byproduct. If you aim for it, you will miss it." The saying often occurs with an identification of it as an Asian proverb (rather than a précis of Aristotle's philosophy); a version appeared in an 1808 Chinese Taoist commentary by I-ming (Yiming) Liu, translated (by Thomas Cleary) as The Inner Teachings of Taoism (Boston: Shambhala, 1986) 13: "Because this opening is most abstruse and subtle, in ecstasy and deep abstraction, if you aim for it, you lose it; if you conceptualize it, that is not it."

Alcohol and gasoline (driving) do not mix.

See "GASOLINE and whiskey do not mix."

Alcohol will preserve anything but a secret.

1904 Charles Wayland Towne (pseudonym "Gideon Wurdz"), A Foolish Dictionary (Boston: John W. Luce) [fol. 6v] (unpaginated; in an alphabetical list of words followed by jocular definitions): "ALCOHOL[:] A liquid good for preserving almost everything except secrets." DAP 14(2).

Be all (the best) that you can be.

1956 Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes (New York: Harper & Row) 117: "The Fitzgerald boys considered this course, but it would have been an act of disloyalty to their father.... He'd always taught them, 'Never be ashamed of what you are. Just be the best you can be and show what colored men can do when they have the chance'"; the book is a partly conjectural memoir of an African American family in the nineteenth century, and the quotations are mostly invented—in the present case (almost certainly) uttered anachronistically. 1968 and 1969 American Library Association: "Be all you can be—read"; the slogan was adopted and promoted (on posters and other literature) for National Library Week. 1970 David W. Augsburger, Be All You Can Be (Carol Stream IL: Creation House). 1971 Paul F. Dietzel, Coaching Football (New York: Ronald) 241: "Be a champ! Be the best that you can be! Hit your own zenith." 1973 Joseph Gerard Brennan, Ethics and Morals (New York: Harper & Row) 157: "The young soul hears his conscience call, 'Be yourself! Be all that you can be!' But the exhortations of his parents, his teachers, his friends and peers all too easily drown out that call...." Since 1980, "Be all that you can be" has ubiquitously appeared as the recruitment slogan for the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves.

It's (They're) all pink on the inside.

1971 Breyten Breytenbach, "Vulture Culture," in Apartheid: A Collection of Writings on South African Racism, edited by Alex La Guma (New York: International) 138: "Apartheid is the White man's night.... What one doesn't see doesn't exist. Also, at night one doesn't balk at the skin deep peculiarities of the girl you sleep with. They are all pink on the inside." 1983 David Allen, "Now Since Fear and Goodness Are Different Things," Denver Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer) 55–56: "She lead [sic] me by the hand to the bedroom, she lay down, she spread her legs.... I said, 'They ARE all pink on the inside.' And we laughed" (capitalization as shown). The proverb ungallantly asserts—from the male point of view—the sameness of all women for sexual purposes.

Kill them all, and let God sort them out.

See "Kill them all, and let GOD sort them out."

Let it all hang out.

See "LET it all hang out."

Almost doesn't count.

See "CLOSE doesn't count."

Almost (Close, Nearly, About) is not good (close) enough (Close doesn't cut it).

1921 American Artisan and Hardware Record 1 Jan.: "'Nearly' is not good enough." 1926 Frank H. Gardner, "Teddy Lands a Big Job," Herald of Gospel Liberty 118, no. 32 (12 Aug.) 759: "It was an awful bitter lesson, but I've learned that almost is not good enough when perfectness can be obtained at the same price or nearly so" (italics as shown). 1935 Independent [St. Petersburg FL] 26 Aug.: "Close isn't close enough, and the boys want undisputed possession of the trophy...." 1985 Los Angeles Times (San Diego County edition) 15 Dec.: "Some recent headlines in Philly newspapers: ... 'Close Doesn't Cut It.'" DAP 15(1): "Almost made it never made the grade." Cf. "CLOSE doesn't count," "BETTER is not good enough," "CLOSE enough is close enough," "GOOD enough is good enough," and "JUST is good enough."

We are not alone.

The locution, prevalent in the discourse of UFO enthusiasts and science fiction fans since the late 1950s, acquired popularity among the general public from the television series The X-Files (1993–2002). The proverb means "Some kinds of creepy occurrences, otherwise inexplicable, must be attributable to the presence of extraterrestrial or supernatural creatures."


Excerpted from THE DICTIONARY OF MODERN PROVERBS by Charles Clay Doyle Wolfgang Mieder Fred R. Shapiro Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Clay Doyle is associate professor of English and linguistics, University of Georgia, and past president of the Western States Folklore Society. He lives in Athens, GA.

Wolfgang Mieder is professor of German and folklore, University of Vermont. He is the author or editor of numerous books on proverbs and the founding editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship. He lives in Burlington, VT.

Fred R. Shapiro is associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School. He is author or editor of several previous books, including the The Yale Book of Quotations. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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