Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play poker with a man named Doc. Never sleep with anyone crazier than you. In the old saloon tradition of male conversation, jovial counsel of this kind often came in clusters of three -- that particular threesome was a favourite of Nelson Algren, the tough-guy novelist. It was a parody of encapsulated fatherly wisdom, such as Polonius ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be") delivers to his son in Hamlet.
The idea of proverbs as the meaning-laden philosophy of the masses has lost some of its potency in recent times. It depended on the oral tradition, which the last two centuries have more or less extinguished in Western society. Even so, most of us live in a world where no news remains good news, a miss is as good as a mile, and you should neither bite the hand that feeds you nor put off till tomorrow what you can do today. It is still reliably reported that a stitch in time saves nine.
Well-worn adages, being expressions of their historic moment, have lately attracted the attention of academics. Wolfgang Mieder of the University of Vermont has made proverbs his specialty. He's the founding editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, and two years ago he contributed to Folklore, a scholarly journal, 13,000 words on the significance of the phrase "Good fences make good neighbours." It fits his central thesis: Intended to be simplifications of complex knowledge, proverbs often end up adding layers of complexity.
Recently, Mineke Schipper, a novelist and critic who teaches at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, has leapt to the forefront of proverb scholarship. She's put together Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World (Yale University Press), a lively and sharply pointed book that combines her immense knowledge of proverbs with her interest in the status of women. Feminist authors and teachers will be analyzing and gratefully quoting her material for at least a generation.
A talented as well as industrious scholar, she writes with poise and intelligence about a subject she obviously knows well. Her long engagement with African literature drew her to proverbs, for which Africans have a special affinity. Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, says that in Africa proverbs are "the palm oil with which words are eaten." The Atar people in Djibouti, on the east coast of Africa, have a saying, "Proverbs are the cream of language."
Schipper, having raised this subject in her writing on literature, started to build a global collection. After 15 years her database contains 15,735 proverbs, catalogued by theme and origin; they represent 240 cultures, both oral and literate.
As she studied proverbs dealing with women, most of them circulated by men, she came to not entirely surprising conclusions. Across the planet, male attitudes to women are usually negative. Mothers appear as worthy and admirable in proverbs, but otherwise women come across as lustful, stupid, deceitful and malicious.
No matter how hard women work, they show up in aphorisms as useless. (Bedouin: "Of all animals the female is the better save only in mankind." Kurdish: "It is better to be a male for one day than a female for 10.") The Frisian Islands in northwest Europe produced this line: "You are right," said the husband, "but all the same keep your mouth shut."
Even the beauty of women evokes ambivalent or negative feelings, from the melancholy (Filipino: "A beautiful woman is a feast for the eyes and loneliness for the soul") to the fearful (German: "A pretty woman has the Devil in her body"). Disappointed North American men say you can't live with women and you can't live without them. The Ashanti in Ghana put it with more graphic style: "A wife is like a blanket: cover yourself, it irritates you; cast it aside, you feel cold."
In the proverbs of many cultures that are otherwise unrelated, women are depicted as horses that require fierce male riders. In Spain and Venezuela Schipper has found men who say women are like buses; if one leaves, another one will come along. In Toronto decades ago we said streetcars, but otherwise the same proverb was part of everyday life.
Schipper sees fear at the root of the attitudes these proverbs express. Her book's title combines proverbs picked up on two sides of the world. In Mozambique and Malawi she collected, "Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own," and from China she acquired, "A woman with long feet ends up alone in a room." She takes these to mean that big feet symbolize a big personality, someone powerful and possibly more competent than a man -- in other words, a woman a man should avoid.
Both proverbs, she argues, warn that a woman of some force threatens her husband's status as head of the family. Maybe this explains a popular song from the 1930s, Your Feet's Too Big, whose words include, "Don't wantcha, cause your feet's too big ... Hate you, cause your feet's too big." I've always liked the charming Fats Waller record, but till now I never had any idea what it meant, and I'm not quite sure I know yet.
Numberless proverbs present a woman as dangerous to a man. This notion obviously originates with males, but a woman may quote it if it furthers her interests. Working in the Congo, Schipper picked up the saying, "Eating with a woman is eating with a witch." It's hardly what you would expect a woman to say, but Schipper found it popular among Congolese mothers whose sons are about to marry. As Schipper says, "The wife-to-be is a stranger to the family, she could poison him, she could bewitch him. The son has to be very careful." Naturally, deploying this proverb pretty well ensures sour family relations from the beginning, which may be the mother's intention.
Foolish Don Quixote, who had a way of summing up the conventional wisdom of his time, said to Sancho Panza, "there is no proverb that is not true, as they are all observations based on experience itself, the Mother of all Sciences." Not necessarily. We might say with more accuracy that a proverb can just as easily be distorted emotion, frozen in words.