Proverb Prudence

Nuggets of ancient wisdom from around the globe
March 6, 2020

You could glance at the history of humankind and come away stupefied by the stupidity of the species – humanity’s insistence on repeating it’s mistakes, being its own greatest enemy, creating the weapons for its own gruesome destruction. You could glance at the history of humankind and think no lessons had been learned.

Or you could glance at the history of humankind through the stepping stones of wise protagonists. Their stories are told in myths and proverbs, whispered in the ears of sleeping children, lyricised by musicians and scripted by playwrights. These stories become part of the background noise: beautiful to hear, satisfying to say, but rarely actually listened to.

If you do listen to a proverb’s meaning, I find you are struck with remarkably good common sense. So here, for your edification:


A lie travels around the world while truth is putting her boots on (French)

Truth and oil always come to the surface. (Spanish)

A fault confessed is half redressed. (Zulu)

An enemy will agree, but a friend will argue. (Russian)

Speak the truth, but leave immediately after. (Slovenian)


A large chair does not make a king. (Sudanese)

The French agree: A throne is only a bench covered with velve

Examine what is said, not who speaks. (Arab)

Words should be weighed, not counted. (Yiddish)

A spoon does not know the taste of soup, nor a learned fool the taste of wisdom. (Welsh)


Still waters run deep. (Latin)

Give neither counsel nor salt till you are asked for it. (Italian) — not that anybody asked me for this life-affirming article.

If you go to a donkey’s house, don’t talk about ears. (Jamaican) — interesting friends you Jamaicans have.

The best advice is found on the pillow. (Danish)


He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. (Chinese)

A man who uses force is afraid of reasoning. (Kenya)

In a battle between elephants, the ants get squashed. (Thai)

To take revenge on an enemy, give him an elephant, first he must thank you for the gift, and then the elephant’s appetite will deplete your enemy’s resources. (Nepalese)


The wise man sits on the hole in his carpet. (Persian)

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. (Greek)


Illustrations by the brilliant Pawel Kuczynski, definitely worth a stop-by.

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