This project has received funding from the Research Council of Lithuania (LMTLT), agreement No [S-LIP-18-43].

On Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases

A proverb (Lith. patarlė, Latvian sakāmvārds, Rus. пословица, Germ. Sprichwort) is a stable widespread saying existing by means of tradition (usually as a figure of speech having a figurative meaning). It serves as a means to give a piece of advice or a bit of instruction, to encourage, to hold somebody from doing something, to warn or generalize, for instance, “Strike while the iron is hot”; “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”; “The birds of the same nest sometimes bear different feathers”. A proverbial phrase (Lith. priežodis, Latvian paruna, Rus. поговорка, Germ. sprichwörtliches Redensart) is a phrase, a remark that describes some event or fact or that expresses the evaluation of the speaker (frequently mocking, disapproving). A proverb usually makes a sentence, whereas a proverbial phrase might be a shorter syntactical structure: “A second cousin four times removed”; “Neither meat nor fish”.

Both proverbs and proverbial phrases had been called proverbial phrases in Lithuanian written tradition until the 19th century. The term appeared relatively early: it is indicated as an equivalent of Polish przysłowie or Lat. proverbium in Konstantinas Sirvydas Dictionary “Dictionarum trium linguarum” (1629). In the 19th century, some publishers of Lithuanian books, such as Kajetonas Nezabitauskis, also used the term proverbial phrase in the broad sense, yet the term proverb also came into use: it was related with the word Lith. patarti meaning ‘to give a piece of advice’. The term might be found in the works by Simonas Daukantas, Motiejus Valančius. Laurynas Ivinskis uses both terms in his calendars (“Prižodej ir patarles / Proverbial phrases and proverbs”), but he does not give any explanation what is meant by either of the terms. Both terms came into use in the folkloristic literature of the 20th century. Petras Būtėnas in his article “The Life of a Proverb and a Proverbial Phrase” published in 1930 attempted to designate the essential features of proverbs, the principles of distinction between proverbs and proverbial phrases. He claimed that there was no need “to meddle proverbial phrase with proverb”, nonetheless, the definitions of proverb and proverbial phrase have varied until the present day, while sometimes there is even an inclination not to distinguish between the two at all. Both proverbs and proverbial phrases are collected in Card Index of Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases and in the eLPP, and published in LPP. Traditional comparisons, such as “lives like a pea near the road” or “as quick as the bottom milestone”, are also published there as well as some situational sayings, formulae of etiquette.

Part of the proverbs and proverbial phrases known to Lithuanians are ancient as they have come to our days from the classical literature, the Bible. A large share of literary sayings derived from fables. The relation between proverbs, proverbial phrases and other genres of folklore is obvious. There are proverbs and proverbial phrases originating from fairy tales, legends, anecdotes. For instance, the saying “Smiles like Cain and Abel in the Moon” is related to the etiological legend about the two biblical characters. The legend gives it that:

“In the grey ancient times two brothers were herding their sheep. One was called Cain, the other – Abel. Once they got angry with each other. Then Cain took it upon himself and killed Abel. Later he came back home with his herd of sheep, whilst the father asked:

– Where is your brother Abel?

Cain replied:

– I killed him.

Then the father cursed his son:

– So that you’d carry your brother on your shoulders in the Moon after your death!


Since then one can see dark marks on the Moon.” (Marks on the Moon, KAU, p. 12)

Some sayings are related to anecdotal situations: “God help both the one who’s chasing and the one who’s running” (a running thief gives some alms to a beggar and asks to pray that he should not be caught. The chaser having approached the beggar also gives him alms and asks to pray that he should manage to catch the thief. The beggar prays: “God help…”); “Who shouts let them shout, whilst we, woman, let’s go” (“Once a man and his wife were going by sledge. On a sudden turn the wife fell off, so she started shouting: “Stop!”, while the man replied: “Who shouts…” LTR 3920(61)) and others.

Quite a number of proverbial phrases have originated from fairy tales. The saying “A fox advised the wolf on catching fish in the hole of ice” reflects the motif of a tale about the fox and the wolf (ATU 2); “Which one gets, which one – not, but the tailless-shorty will get for sure” – a phrase from the tale about a man who climbed a tree and a bunch of wolves trying to catch him by getting on each other’s back (AT 121).

It is not difficult to observe the relation between some proverbs and riddles. The proverb “That who covers others is always naked himself” is related to the riddle “Naked herself, covers others. – A needle” LTR 4165(225/1). The artistic imagery of this and other sayings, e.g. “Muddy in summer, buddy in winter”, were conceived of while guessing the riddles and later entered the genre of proverbs. Whereas, riddle-questions, such as „How to know a fool? – From laughter”, “What can hang as well as release a man? – The tongue” are paraphrased proverbs.

A great many sayings are related with beliefs. Part of that is predictions of weather widespread in folklore meteorology. For instance, the saying “a cat on a stove invites winter” is related to traditional beliefs that cats look for stoves in cold times (AED p. 397). Reflections of other beliefs may also be found in proverbs and proverbial phrases. For instance, sayings about swallows: “A swallow came back – happiness brought back”; “As the swallow appeared, all arguing vanished”; “Arguing at home chases the swallow away”; “Hates like a swallow hates angry man” – they all point to the belief that a swallow having its nest under the roof of one’s house brings happiness and harmony.

The corpus of Lithuanian proverbs and proverbial phrases, just as ones of other nations, is comprised of local sayings and internationally known ones. Widely known proverbs as “One hand washes the other”; “Strike as the iron is hot”; “The apple never falls far from the tree”; “Fields have eyes and woods have ears” are used in many other languages.  The components of artistic imagery employed in sayings used in various languages may vary slightly or national versions of the saying may emerge. Every nation has sayings typical exclusively of that group: the sayings are related with specific customs, beliefs, mythical creatures, toponyms; proverbs and proverbial phrases may also be based on similar pronunciation, for instance, “Even aitvaras[1] carries to the rich”; “Dressed up like Magde from Raseiniai”, or something like the English “Barney Rubble equals trouble” and so on.

Dalia Zaikauskienė ir Vita Džekčioriūtė-Medeišienė


[1] A mythical creature that brings wealth.