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Proverb Prudence

Plodding on with the global proverb tour…


By Tilda


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 lens of its wisest protagonists. Their story is told in myths and proverbs, weathered over ages. It is whispered in the ears of sleeping children, adapted as fairytales and classroom digests, put to music by lyricists and scripts by playwrights. These words 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) — but don’t get complacent…


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


A fault confessed is half redressed. (Zulu) — I recently discovered apologising and it’s become one of my favourite things to do. People are simply shocked when someone admits they’re wrong, it shuts them straight up.


An enemy will agree, but a friend will argue. (Russian) — this is something I try and force myself to observe. But it’s not always easy to be honest, especially with the people you love. So the Slovenians have a proverb for that:


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




A large chair does not make a king. (Sudanese) — in much the same way as a wheely chair with full recline and massage features does not make a good boss (quite possibly, larger chair = wankier boss).


The French agree: A throne is only a bench covered with velvet (no prizes for guessing when they came up with that).


Examine what is said, not who speaks. (Arab) — this hits me at two angles. I sometimes feel I get ignored because of who I am, because I’m a girl, because I’m young and impetuous, because I have trashy wrist tattoos… we all get that: ‘Listen to me fool I’m ACTUALLY right!!!’ Judge a book by it’s words not it’s cover, that familiar tune. On the other hand, I have reservations about this proverb. Against legalistic political-correctness that insists on policing words minutely, I don’t think we should isolate words from the personal sentiment within them. Words have only half-meaning without context and character.


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) — sleep is totally devalued in modern society. We stare at screens from dawn till dusk releasing dopamine into our system instead of the melatonin we need to sleep. We sleep with our mobiles and therefore with everyone active on social media. We drug ourselves asleep and caffeinate ourselves awake. We boast about all-nighters because sleep is for the weak. Thatcher and Reagan, the two world leaders most known for this boast, both died of Alzheimer’s, a condition now connected to long-term sleep deprivation. It turns out that by sleeping five hours a night I compromise my memory, metabolism, mood, immunity and good judgement (which is probably why I continue to do it).




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


A man who uses force is afraid of reasoning. (Kenya) —  we claim to be the species of reason, and the ‘age of reason’ within our own species’ timeline. So it’s a little inconsistent to opt in favour of forceful resolution when we know we’re being unreasonable.



In a battle between elephants, the ants get squashed. (Thai) — in case it isn’t obvious, I don’t like war. I hold my hands up to pacifism, and I realise that hippy happy proverbs don’t really address the complications of the debate, but this one is fact. History can lend no greater evidence.


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) — a much more tactful approach and a great way to get rid of all those spare elephants you have lying around. Thanks Nepal.




The wise man sits on the hole in his carpet. (Persian) — just a great tip.


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. (Greek) – well, we’re screwed.



On that uncharacteristically cynical note, I’m tapping out.


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




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