Proverb vs. Adage

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English possesses dozens of nouns that mean “short sayings that encapsulate truth or wisdom passed on from previous generations.” Proverb and adage are two of them.

proverb: a short, traditional, and pithy saying; a concise sentence, typically metaphorical or alliterative in form, stating a general truth or piece of advice; an adage.

adage: a proverb or short statement expressing a general truth.

Efforts are made to draw a distinction between proverb and adage, but in common usage, the words are interchangeable. There may be a sense that adage is a classier word than proverb.

Because a saying becomes a proverb or an adage by being repeated from generation to generation, the expression “old adage” is often criticized for being redundant, but it is very common:

According to the famous old adage, all roads lead to Rome.

Remember the old adage, A picture’s worth a thousand words?

He said “President Reagan’s old adage about ‘trust but verify’ … is in need of an update

I confirmed with Brenda that what she is trying to convey to her students is the old writing adage “show, don’t tell.”

As that last quotation is from the Grammar Girl herself, Mignon Fogarty, I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize.

Numerous lists of proverbs and adages can be found on line, but their compilers don’t always distinguish between actual proverbs and quotations from song lyrics and literature. For example,

All you need is love (Beatle song, 1967)
‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all. (Tennyson, In Memoriam, 1850)
The female of the species is more deadly than the male. (Kipling, “The Female of the Species,” 1911.)

Many proverbs are couched as advice:

Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Don’t rock the boat.
Let sleeping dogs lie.
Never let the sun go down on your anger.
Never tell tales out of school.
Waste not want not.

Judging by some of the questions that have stumped recent Jeopardy contestants, the passing on of proverbs seems to be in decline.

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5 thoughts on “Proverb vs. Adage”

  1. “but their compilers don’t always distinguish between actual proverbs and quotations from song lyrics and literature.”

    “Into the valley of death rode the 600.”
    “Into the mouth of Hell rode the 600.”
    “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
    Remember the Alamo.
    Remember the MAINE.
    Remember Pearl Harbor.
    “December 7, 1941, a date that shall live in infamy.”
    “I shall return.” – Gen. MacArthur
    “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” – Pogo.
    “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy
    During the wild spending of the years 2001 through 2007,
    so many people forgot Ben Franklin’s pithy statement: “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Also: “Waste not, want not.”

    Proverbs and adages: Pithy Statements. Statements that strike to the gist of the situation. Good words “pith” and “gist”. “Get to the gist.”

  2. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade … not because it is easy but because it is hard.” John F. Kennedy

    I modified this one for my own purposes when I was teaching seniors in electronics technology:
    “We study communication systems, not because it is easy but because it is hard.” I was warning then that a lot of studying and working a lot of homework problems would be necessary, and that the laboratories would be demanding.
    I specialize in communication systems in graduate school at Georgia Tech, and I had to study hard at it. Then I learned even more by teaching the some subject to undergraduate students. You ususally do.

    Some people need to study hard at English, not because it is easy, but because it is (sometimes) hard.

  3. Oh!! … because it’s hard. I never thought …because it’s HOD made any sense. I also didn’t know where Cuber was, but that got explained by a Baston-English translator I knew.

    Sometimes these sayings get hilariously twisted by people who seem clueless to their own humor. Right off the top of my head, I have heard: We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it and, maybe the most priceless, The Nile’s not the only queen of Egypt. Magnificent! Cleopatra’s not the only river there, either, and I’m sure someone must’ve pointed that out at some time.

  4. In my region, we use proverbs and adages as moral teachings, for example, all that glitters is not gold. This help individuals to be careful when about to close a deal that is seems so easy and maybe cheap as the adage states when a deal is too good think twice.

    In Africa, most proverbs and adages are associated with culture and different tribes have their own proverbs. They play an important role i the society such as, once bitten twice shy.

  5. If you are going to ask me, what is the difference between Adage and Proverb? Well both an adage and a proverb are sayings, but proverb is more common than an adage in everyday life. There is a practical aspect of a proverb whereas an adage is believed true because of long standing or use. If one looks up Webster’s, he finds that a proverb has been defined describing it as an adage. Adage and proverbs have many similarities, but they are not interchangeable. Lastly, a proverb can be an adage.

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