Proverbs and idioms by Angela Caldin

A few weeks ago, I was pondering on the difference between an idiom and a cliché. I understood that the overall meaning of an idiom is different from the meaning of the individual words used, whereas a cliché is a phrase or expression which has been severely overused so as to become hackneyed and stale. In addition, I realised that many idioms, though by no means all, are also clichés

This week I’m pondering on the difference between an idiom and a proverb and finding that, though the distinction is often clear, there are some expressions which end up in either category according to the whim of the categoriser. An idiom, as we have seen, is an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make it up, it is a figurative affair, while a proverb is an old, familiar saying that gives advice or states a general truth. If we say, ‘The cat’s out of the bag’ instead of ‘the secret is out.’ I’m fairly sure that’s an idiom. But if we say, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ that’s a proverb, giving advice about how to stay healthy.

Examples of proverbs

Blacksmith at work on an anvil

Strike while the iron’s hot

This means you should take advantage of a good opportunity without hesitation when it presents itself. A blacksmith must shape iron into objects during the brief time that the coals are red-hot.

He who pays the piper calls the tune

In medieval times, people were entertained by strolling musicians. Whoever paid the price the musician requested could choose the music. Nowadays this means that whoever pays is in charge.

Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

This means that you should not criticise other people for bad qualities in their character that you have yourself.

A stitch in time saves nine

An action taken now will prevent problems later.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

A real friend will be there for you in your troubles.

Empty vessels make most noise

Those with least wisdom or knowledge are often the most talkative.

Searching for meaning

As we’ve seen before, the literal meaning of an idiom often doesn’t make sense, and idioms can be almost impossible to understand unless you have learned or heard them before. The literal meaning of an expression such as ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’ does make sense on its own, but it’s not until you apply this meaning to a broader set of situations that you understand the real point of the saying which is to advise you not to get upset over something that has already happened because it’s too late to worry about it now. I had this down as an idiom, but now I wonder if it’s a proverb.

All of this makes me return to ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ which I had also blithely included as an idiom in my previous post. The expression means that it is better to have something less valuable that is actually in your possession than to pursue something more valuable that may not be obtainable. I think that it is possible to infer what this expression means from the individual words, and therefore perhaps it is not an idiom, but a proverb.

Now I’m feeling muddled, so I’ll conclude by leaving you with this conundrum: when is a proverb an idiom and vice versa and does it matter?

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