Proverbs – Definition, Meaning & Examples

07.02.24 Proverbs Time to read: 14min

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Proverbs play an integral role in culture globally, embodying various collective wisdom, experiences, and truths of societies and offering deep insights into the beliefs a community follows. These sayings are often characterized by conveying practical advice, universal truths, and moral life lessons concisely and briefly. In essence, proverbs are more than a few words; they compress complex wisdom, traditions, and humor of cultures and serve as a gateway to a broader view of the world.

Proverbs in a nutshell

A proverb imparts a traditional saying that conveys advice, a general truth, or universal wisdom concisely and briefly. Often passed down through generations, they have become cornerstones and valuable guidance in decision-making and complex life situations, as they reflect the beliefs, culture, and values of virtually all societies. In other words, they compress otherwise complex ideas and wisdom into compact and simple versions to be lasting and easy to understand.

Definition: Proverbs

Proverbs often include metaphorical context and variate based on their cultural background and the generations they have been passed through. They are typically recognized by compactly conveying complex general truths, practical advice, or traditional wisdom. Proverbial expressions are common sayings across virtually every culture and reflect mutual beliefs and values respectively. Based on their nature of common sense and collective human experience, they have distinct characteristics, which are elaborated on below.

Proverbs stand out with their brevity and simplification of complex context. This makes them more memorable, contributing to adopting them in many cultures and transmitting them across generations.

The core of most proverbs is rooted in the culture they originate from. Thus, they tend to reflect common beliefs, experiences, and values of the respective culture. Passing through many generations, they can evolve and take on different meanings.

Proverbs often take on an instructive or educational nature by communicating morality, human behavior, and practical advice. In other words, their purpose lies in teaching life lessons that are easy to remember.

Proverbs frequently use metaphorical language or other sorts of figures of speech. Including them helps provide a visual image for a simpler understanding and a better way to connect the dots of the meaning.

Proverbs encapsulate collective life experiences with the purpose of offering wisdom and advice. These experiences are typically generalized and can be applied to an array of situations similar in nature.

Originally, proverbs were already a significant part of oral tradition, and through the course of history, they have evolved to also become written sayings. This evolution has resulted in different varieties of wording and interpretation.

While every culture has its own specific proverbs, some may exist in different forms but represent universal human experiences that are understood cross-culturally. I.e., depending on the culture, the universal human experience may be conveyed differently.

Using proverbs in written or spoken language has become a crucial part of communication, as they assist in conveying authority, making a point briefly, providing advice, or expressing a point of view in a simple and memorable way.


Below, you can view some of the most commonly known proverbs in the English language with short explanations and examples.

Example 1

A picture is worth a thousand words.

This proverb emphasizes that a single visual representation can be more effective than substantial verbal or written explanations. In other words, complex ideas or principles can be encapsulated in just a single image and provide a better understanding than text or speech.

Example 2

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

This proverb conveys the advice that plans shouldn’t be made when they depend on a future event and the outcome is uncertain. In other words, being presumptuous or overconfident about certain situations that have not occurred yet, shouldn’t be the baseline for any plans that depend on the outcome.

Example 3

The early bird catches the worm.

This saying urges people to begin their endeavors as soon as possible and be prompt about seizing opportunities to have a higher success rate. It advises against procrastination and rather encourages proactiveness, as most doors of opportunities are free to enter without a queue when you are first at sight.

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Proverb vs. proverbial phrase

When we speak of a proverbial phrase, also called a proverbial expression, we speak of a type of conventional saying that has a similar nature to proverbs and is also transferred from traditional speech. While proverbs are fixed expressions, proverbial phrases shape a genre of folklore, as they can be restructured, adjusted, and changed to fit the grammatical construct and meaning of the context.


The following examples will show you common proverbial phrases that are changed to fit into the overall grammatical structure of the context.

Proverb: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Proverbial phrase: She used a single, powerful image to demonstrate that sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words.

Proverb: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Proverbial phrase: He already planned to spend his bonus, but he should remember not to count his chickens before they’ve hatched, as the deal isn’t finalized.

Proverb: The early bird catches the worm.

Proverbial phrase: She is usually at the office at 6 am everyday, living by the principle that the early bird catches the worm.

List of proverbs

In the following, you will find a list of commonly and well-known proverbs.

List of proverbs
a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
a fool and his money are soon parted
a friend in need is a friend indeed
a friend to everyone is a friend to no one
a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
a leopard cannot change its spots
a little learning is a dangerous thing
a miss is as good as a mile
a penny saved is a penny earned
a picture is worth a thousand words
a rising tide lifts all boats
a rolling stone gathers no moss
a ship in a harbour is safe
a stitch in time saves nine
a watched pot never boils
absence makes the heart grow fonder
all good things must come to an end
all hands on deck
all is fair in love and war
all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds
all is well that ends well
all roads lead to rome
all that glitters is not gold
all things come to those who wait
all things must pass
all you need is love
an apple a day keeps the doctor away
an army marches on its stomach
an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
another day another dollar
another man's poison
any port in a storm
any publicity is good publicity
as you sow so shall you reap
be yourself
beauty is in the eye of the beholder
beauty is only skin deep
beggars cannot be choosers
better late than never
better safe than sorry
better to reign in hell than serve in heaven
better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt
beware of greeks bearing gifts
big fish eat little fish
birds of a feather flock together
blood is thicker than water
business before pleasure
buyer beware caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)
caesar's wife must be above suspicion
charity begins at home
cheaters never prosper
christmas comes but once a year
cleanliness is next to godliness
clothes make the man
cold hands warm heart
comparisons are odious
count your blessings
crime does not pay
criss cross applesauce
cross my heart and hope to die
curiosity killed the cat
cut your coat according to your cloth
dance with the devil
dead men tell no tales/dead men tell no lies
devil take the hindmost
discretion is the better part of valour
distance makes the heart grow fonder
do as i say not as i do
do as you would be done by
do not bite the hand that feeds you
do not cast pearls before swine
do not cry over spilled milk
do not cut off your nose to spite your face
do not judge a book by its cover
do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today
do not rock the boat
do not throw pearls to swine
do unto others as others would do unto you
dog is a man's best friend
don't look a gift horse in the mouth (never look a gift horse in the mouth)
early to bed early to rise quote
easier said than done
east is east and west is west
easy come, easy go
eat breakfast like a king
eat, drink and be merry (for tomorrow we die)
empty vessels make the most noise
even a worm will turn
every cloud has a silver lining
every dog has his day
every man for himself
every picture tells a story
every rose has its thorn
everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die
failing to plan is planning to fail
faint heart never won fair lady
fair exchange is no robbery
faith will move mountains
fake it till you make it
fall seven times stand up eight
familiarity breeds contempt
feed a cold and starve a flu/feed a flu and starve a cold
feed a cold, starve a fever
fight fire with fire
finders keepers (losers weepers)
fine words butter no parsnips
first come, first served
first things first
fools rush in
fools rush in where angels fear to tread
forewarned is forearmed
fortune favours the bold/luck favours the bold
give a man a fish and you feed him for a day
give a man a fish quote/teach a man to fish quotes
give credit where credit is due
give the devil his due
god helps those who help themselves
good fences make good neighbours
good things come to those who wait
great minds think alike
handsome is as handsome does
haste makes waste
he who hesitates is lost
he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword
he who pays the piper calls the tune
hell hath no fury like a woman scorned
history repeats itself
home is where the heart is
honesty is the best policy
hope for the best
hope springs eternal
horses for courses
if ifs and ands were pots and pans
if it aint broke, dont fix it
if the shoe fits, wear it
if tomorrow never comes
if you give a mouse a cookie
if you've got it, flaunt it
ignorance is bliss
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
in for a penny, in for a pound
in like a lion out like a lamb
in the midst of life we are in death
it ain't over till it's over
it ain't over till the fat lady sings
it goes without saying
it is a small world
it is better to give than to receive
it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all
it is never too late
it is on
it is what it is
it never rains but it pours
it takes one to know one
it takes two to tango
it's greek to me
jack of all trades, master of none
judge not lest ye be judged
keep your chin up
keep your friends close and your enemies closer
keep your powder dry
kill the goose with golden eggs
kill two birds with one stone
knock on wood
knowledge is power
laugh and the world laughs with you
laughter is the best medicine
least said, soonest mended
less is more
let bygones be bygones
let sleeping dogs lie
let the cat out of the bag
let the dead bury the dead
let your hair down
life is what you make it
lightning never strikes twice in the same place
like father, like son
little pitchers have big ears
live and let live
live long enough to become the villain
live to fight another day
look before you leap
loose lips sink ships
love is blind
love makes the world go around
love of money is the root of all evil
love will find a way
make hay while the sun shines
make love not war
man does not live by bread alone
manners maketh man (manner make a man)
many a mickle makes a muckle
many a true word is spoken in jest
many hands make light work
marry in haste, repent at leisure
might is right
might makes right
mighty oaks from little acorns grow
milking the bull
misery loves company
moderation in all things
money is not everything
money talks
more haste, less speed
Murphy's law (if anything can go wrong, it will)
nature abhors a vacuum
necessity is the mother of invention
needs must when the devil drives
never give a sucker an even break
never judge a book by its cover
never let the sun go down on your anger
never let the truth get in the way of a good story
never put off until tomorrow what you can do today
never say die
never say never
never speak ill of the dead
no guts no glory
no man can serve two masters
no man is an island
no names no pack drill
no news is good news
no one can make you feel inferior without your consent
no pain, no gain
no rest for the wicked
not all those who wander are lost
nothing is certain but death and taxes
nothing succeeds like success
nothing ventured, nothing gained
of course my horse
oil and water do not mix
old soldiers never die
once bitten, twice shy
one good turn deserves another
one hand washes the other
one man's trash is another man's treasure
one swallow does not make a summer
out of sight ,out of mind
out of the frying pan and into the fire
out of the mouths of babes
patience is a virtue
pay peanuts get monkeys
pearls of wisdom
penny wise and pound foolish
people who live in glass houses shouldn t throw stones
physician heal thyself
possession is nine tenths of the law
power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely
practice makes perfect
practice what you preach
preaching to the choir
prevention is better than cure
pride comes before a fall
pride goes before a fall
put your money where your mouth is
putting the cart before the horse
revenge is a dish best served cold
revenge is sweet
right or wrong, my country
see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
seeing is believing
seek and ye shall find
silence is golden
slow and steady wins the race
smooth move
snake in the grass
softly, softly, catchee monkey
some are more equal than others
speak of the devil
speak softly and carry a big stick
stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me
stick in mud
still waters run deep
strike while the iron is hot
stupid is as stupid does
talk is cheap
talk of the devil
tell the truth and shame the devil
the apple never falls far from the tree
the best defence is a good offence
the best things in life are free
the bigger they are the harder they fall
the comeback is greater than the setback
the course of true love never did run smooth
the customer is always right
the darkest hour is just before the dawn
the die is cast
the early bird gets the early worm
the end justifies the means
the enemy of my enemy is my friend
the exception which proves the rule
the female of the species is more deadly than the male
the good die young
the grass is always greener on the other side
the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world
the labourer is worthy of his hire
the longest journey starts with a single step
the moon is made of green cheese
the more the merrier
the more things change, the more they stay the same
the only disability in life is a bad attitude
the pen is mightier than the sword
the pot calling the kettle black
the proof of the pudding is in the eating
the road to hell is paved with good intentions
the squeaky wheel gets the grease
the third time's the charm
the way to a man's heart is through his stomach
there ain't no free lunch
there are none so blind as those who will not see
there but for the grace of god go i
there is no place like home
there is no smoke without fire
there is no such thing as a free lunch
there is no such thing as bad publicity
there is no time like the present
there is one born every minute
those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it
time and tide wait for no man
time flies
time is a great healer
(only) time will tell
tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all
to each their own
to err is human, to forgive divine
to the victor go the spoils
tomorrow is another day
too little, too late
too many cooks spoil the broth
too much of a good thing
truth is stranger than fiction
(the) truth will out
two birds with one stone
two can play at that game
two heads are better than one
two wrongs do (not) make a right
uneasy lies the head that wears a crown
united we stand, divided we fall
unity is strength
up a creek without a paddle
use it or lose it
variety is the spice of life
virtue is its own reward
walk softly but carry a big stick
walls have ears
waste not, want not
well begun is half done
well done is better than well said
what does not kill me makes me stronger
what goes around comes around
what goes up must come down
whatever floats your boat
when in rome
when it rains it pours
when life gives you lemons make lemonade
when the going gets tough the tough get going
where there is life there is hope
where there's a will there's a way
with great power comes great responsibility (Marvel)
wonders will never cease
you are what you eat
you can lead a horse to water
you can never tell
you cannot have your cake and eat it too
you catch more flies with honey
you reap what you sow
youth is wasted on the young

Origins and sources

Proverbs have diverse origins and sources, ranging from ancient literature to poetry. The following delves into some of the most influential sources.

Religious script and ancient literature

Many proverbs that are pivotal parts of culture stem from ancient and religious texts in sacred books, offering a window into the ethics, philosophies, and values from which they emerged. Typically, passed down through many generations, they have become vital parts of the moral fabric of societies. Some of the most prominent sources are the Bible, ancient Greek literature, Eastern texts, and Islamic texts.

The Bible

Sacred books such as, e.g., the Bible have a section of proverbs called “The Book of Proverbs,” which embodies a primary source of proverbial wisdom in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Additionally, many English proverbs are derived from the meanings of these biblical sayings.

Example 1

Proverb 15:1:

“A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

Alternative English proverb:

“Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

This saying suggests that a calm and measured response in handling conflict may be more effective in defusing their anger and achieving a positive outcome, rather than an aggressive and harsh response, which may escalate the conflict further.

Example 2

Proverb 27:17:

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Alternative English proverb:

“Two heads are better than one.”

This proverb encourages teamwork and collaboration, emphasizing that mutual support and uplifting each other may have a positive impact on personal improvement and growth.

Example 3

Proverb 16:18:

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

Alternative English proverb:

“The higher you climb, the harder you fall.”

This saying conveys the message that excessive overconfidence or arrogance typically results in a much more profound failure or downfall. They are reminders that pride or arrogance may cloud one’s rational judgment and become dangerous.

Ancient Greek literature

Another outstanding contribution to proverbs was ancient Greek poets and philosophers. “The Gnomologium,” a collection of proverbs and aphorisms based on Greek sages, is one of the most well-known compilations. These types of proverbs often reflect the timelessness and wise depth of Greek philosophy and continue to impact contemporary thinking and wisdom.

Example 1

Greek: “Πάντα ρεῖ” (Panta rhei)

English: “Everything flows.”

This proverb can be attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and suggests that the world around us is ever-changing. It highlights the concept of impermanence and that nothing stays the same.

Example 2

Greek: “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν”(Gnōthi seauton)

English: “Know thyself.”

This well-known proverb is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and can be attributed to several Greek sages like Socrates. This saying underscores the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection as crucial criteria to gain wisdom and knowledge.

Example 3

Greek: “Οὐδὲν ἄγαν” (Ouden agan)

English: “Nothing in excess.” or “Moderation in all things.”

This proverb also originates from the Delphic maxims, conveying the wisdom that balance and moderation in all aspects of life contribute to a healthy lifestyle. On the contrary, anything at the extreme poses danger and a negative impact on life.

Ancient Eastern script

Eastern proverbial expressions can be depicted in e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. They are typically rich in proverbs and wisdom that have influenced philosophical thinking through time and to this day.

Example 1

Hinduism: “Satyam eva jayate”

English: “Truth alone triumphs.”

This influential proverb emphasizes the importance of honesty and truth-telling. It encapsulates that at last, the truth will always win over deception and falsehood. This saying promotes integrity, transparency, and honesty as integral to justice and success.

Example 2

Buddhism: “To understand everything is to forgive everything.”

This saying entails the wisdom that comprehending and understanding leads to compassion and forgiveness. It suggests that if we obtain a better understanding of a situation or an individual such as circumstances, perspectives, and motives, we will more likely let go of grievances and grudges.

Example 3

Taoism: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, this proverb embodies the Taoist philosophy of embracing change and letting go so one’s true potential naturally unfolds. It means that letting go of self-limiting and ego-driven ideas, helps becoming your authentic self.

Example 4

Confucianism: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

This proverbial saying urges steady progress, determination, and perseverance in life. It highlights the importance of moving forward, no matter the pace. It aims to encourage people to remain committed to their aspirations and goals, regardless of their slow progress.

Islamic texts

The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in sacred books like the Quran and Hadith in Islamic text also contain many proverbial expressions that have contributed to the development of general wisdom and contemporary proverbs. They primarily offer practical and moral guidance for Muslims.

Example 1

Quran 94:6:

Arabic: “فَإِنَّ مَعَ ٱلْعُسْرِ يُسْرًۭا” (Inna ma’al usri yusra).

English: “Indeed, with hardship comes ease.”

This saying can be attributed to Surah Al-Inshirah and offers solace during challenging or difficult times. It embodies a fundamental aspect of the Islamic faith, conveying the idea that when life is testing you, better times are ahead and you can expect ease and relief eventually.

Example 2

Arabic: “إِنَّمَا الْأَعْمَالُ بِالنِّيَّاتِ” (Innama al-a’malu binniyat).

English: “Actions are but by intention.”

Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, this proverb is also known as the “Hadith of Intentions” and underscores the importance of motives or intentions behind actions or deeds. It encapsulates that the value and worth of one’s action are measured by one’s purity and sincerity of intent. I.e., A good act is only valuable with virtuous and genuine intentions.

Example 3

Arabic: “ابتغِ العلم من المهد إلى اللحد” (Ibtaqil ‘ilm min al-mahdi ila al-lahd.)

English: “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

In Islamic belief, gaining knowledge is not only personal growth but also societal advancement. In essence, this proverb encourages individuals to proactively seek opportunities for self-improvement and learning as early as possible in life and until the end. It portrays the importance of intellectual growth and education in Islam.

Types of proverbs

There is a wide range of categories and types of proverbs, which are tailored to the specific purpose they serve and what aspect of wisdom they convey. Here is a list of some of the most common types of proverbs with explanations and examples.

This type of proverbial expression describes a general observation or truth of many life situations. They are straight to the point and brief, but usually convey a more complex idea or concept.


Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

This saying indicates that if red flags or signs of a problem are perceived, it is highly likely that there is a bigger issue behind it.

Ethical proverbial expression encapsulates ethical or moral values, determining what is wrong and right behavior, complex ideas or concepts.


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This widely-known saying also called the Golden Rule, depicts a fundamental ethical principle that many cultures and religions stand by. The message is that you should treat others with the same kindness and respect as you would like to be treated yourself. It entails moral integrity, empathy, and consideration applied in social and personal contexts.

Humorous proverbs often contain sarcasm and wit to communicate a message. In some cases, remarks are added to already existing proverbs to create a humorous turnaround, oftentimes making the meaning ironic or contradictory.


The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Here, a playful remark is added to the well-known saying “The early bird catches the worm,” which promotes that acting the quickest gives you a higher rate of success. However, the humorous twist contradicts it by making the point that being first may not always be best, as the first mouse in the mousetrap gets caught and the next one will get the cheese. Essentially, it is a sarcastic reminder that strategy and timing may be just as important as being first.

These types of proverbs offer advice and guidance for many life situations. The advice is typically based on collective human experiences and common sense, and aims to guide individuals on how to behave and act appropriately depending on the situation.


Strike while the iron is hot.

This advisory proverb stresses the importance of seizing an opportunity when it is the right time. Metaphorically, it derives from blacksmithing, where iron is shaped best at the right temperature. The cooler it gets, the harder to shape it. In essence, this saying encourages taking advantage of a beneficial situation before the opportunity passes.

Similar to advisory proverbs, these types of proverbs also offer advice, however, with a more cautionary connotation to it. This type of saying commonly alerts or discourages certain behaviors by emphasizing the potential risks and dangers of the outcome.


All the glitter is not gold.

This warning proverb expresses that nothing may be what it seems. E.g., when the surface looks attractive, it is important not to be deceived by appearance, as the core may not represent what the outside shows.

Similar to riddles, mystery proverbs often need some interpretation, as they frequently have a deeper meaning than what is apparent on the surface. In other words, they may have a hidden meaning, which requires thought to be completely understood.


He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.

This saying carries a deeper meaning than stated. The rose represents a positive situation, person, or object, while the thorn portrays challenges, drawbacks, or difficulties. Basically, this proverb depicts that achieving something positive often lays obstacles in the way, but makes it even more worth at the end.

Spiritual proverbs convey insights or wisdom related to moral principles, religion, or spirituality. They usually reflect deeper aspects beyond human existence and are based on spiritual and religious tradition.


As you sow, so shall you reap.

This proverb can be found in an array of religious and cultural scripts, suggesting that every act carries consequences. In other words, you will eventually face the result of your action.

These types of proverbs are two sayings that are contradictory in their meaning, conveying that wisdom may vary depending on the situation or context. In other words, what may be wise in some cases, may be bad in others.


Absence makes the heart grow fonder. vs. Out of sight, out of mind.

In this case, the first proverbial expression suggests that distance or separation makes a bond between people stronger or strengthens love. However, “out of sight, out of mind” implies that it makes people forget. These are two wisdoms that are relevant in certain contexts and reflect the opposite of each other, which shows that not all proverbs can be applied to every situation even when similar in nature.

Meta proverbs are sayings about proverbs. They convey instructions on how to interpret proverbs based on their usage, truth, and nature. The purpose is to provide a better understanding of proverbs and how they are applied in cultural and communicational contexts.


Proverbs are the daughters of daily experience.

This meta proverb highlights that proverbs are created based on collective human experience in everyday life. It metaphorically refers to them as the “daughters of daily experience,” indicating a direct and close connection between proverbs and common experience.

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A proverb is a short and widely known saying that conveys a general truth, practical advice, or traditional wisdom based on collective human experience.

Here are three commonly known examples of proverbs:

  • “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
  • “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
  • “Honesty is the best policy.”

Here is a short list of some of the most popular ones:

  • It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • The early bird catches the worm.
  • Don’t make a mountain out of an anthill (or molehill).
  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  • Always put your best foot forward.
  • The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss.

In sacred books, proverbs are compilations of moral and wise sayings, forming a segment in an entire book.

These types of sayings have distinct characteristics:

  • Brief and concise
  • Cultural context
  • Advising nature
  • Figurative and metaphorical
  • General truths and wisdom
  • Origin and tradition
  • Universal and versatile

Find an elaborate account of these characteristics in this article.