Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs–edited by Elizabeth Knowles


It’s November and – in my part of the northern hemisphere at least – the weather is behaving accordingly, with horizontal  sleet, freezing temperatures and a wind scything straight off the Russian Steppes. Add to that a generalised gloom – and the impression that the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket – and the thought of warm fires and twinkly lights on a tree becomes very alluring.

So I hereby propose that Christmas planning starts now. Do I hear a seconder? Thank you at the back …

The new edition of the Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is not only a perfect stocking filler but also an excellent source of instant wisdom in trying times. Laid out in categories and with a handy keyword index, you can quickly find an aphorism for every occasion.

Do you want a pithy few words for the unfathomable behaviour of your fellow man? How about:

‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Listed under ‘Fools’ and and often known, we are told, as Hanlon’s Razor.)

Or how about this from the mid 20th century:

‘No tree takes so deep a root as prejudice.’ (In the ‘Prejudice and Tolerance’ section.)

coupled with the 19th century American proverb:

‘A lie can go around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.’ (Under ‘Lies’)

See what I mean? Pocket wisdom, no less.

We – mankind that is – have, of course, been summing up the human condition in soundbites ever since we first realized the propensity of people to strain at gnats and swallow a camel (New Testament, Matthew 23:24) and that empty vessels make most sound (15th century English proverb). Nor are aphorisms and proverbs peculiar only to certain countries – they’re a worldwide phenomenon, knowing no international boundaries.

In Africa, for instance, they apparently say that the river which forgets its own source will dry up  and while the Italians advise us to keep one eye on the frying pan, and one on the cat, the Koreans warn that when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.

But The Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is not just a diverting bedside book to be dipped into at random when you’re lying awake at night telling yourself not to meet troubles half way (English proverb, 19th century) – it’s also an aesthetically pleasing object … a chunky little hardback which feels reassuringly sturdy in the hand – with a sewn-in silken book mark and a soul-soothingly beautiful cover illustration into the bargain.

And while many proverbs, probably inevitably, relate to mankind’s uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot, there are unexpected and welcome flashes of both humour – (we have both pole turtles and used car salesmen, for instance) – and optimism.

Along with the familiar long lanes that have no turning and darkest hours before the dawn, I also discovered this lovely Maori saying, which was totally unfamiliar to me:

As one fern frond dies, another is born to take its place.


Oxford University Press. Second Edition. 2016. ISBN: 978-0-19-877837-0. 498pp.

3 comments on “The Little Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs–edited by Elizabeth Knowles

  1. Malcolm
    November 11, 2016

    Excellent. Thanks.

  2. Moira
    November 11, 2016

    You’re very welcome, Malcolm.

  3. Alexandrina Brant
    November 12, 2016

    Reblogged this on Miss Alexandrina.

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This entry was posted on November 11, 2016 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction, non-fiction: language and tagged , , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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