Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Post by Lynn

When I was in the Peace Corps, in Mali, West Africa, I used the gathering of proverbs and colloqualisms as a tool to learn Bambara, the local language. Turns out the Malians are big on proverbs, especially the elders who use them as ways to offer advice to the young.


Dooni, dooni, kanoni be so dila. 

In English: Little by little, the bird builds his nest.

Meaning: The Malian version of “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”


Dow be dow don, tow be dow don.

In English: Some people know one thing, others know another thing.

Meaning: You can’t know it all and that’s okay.

I always got excited when I discovered a proverb or phrase in Bambara that correlated with one in English. I remember learning that “to put your foot in your mouth” was exactly the same in Bambara and English—meaning that you had said something really stupid.

Cool! I knew that was a phrase I could use often.

The first time I used it (hoping to impress with my Bambara language skills) I got the word for foot (sen) mixed up with the word for breast (siin).

Close, right?

You should have seen the look on that guy’s face.

I’ve been collecting proverbs for a long time. Not surprisingly, they have intertwined with my writing life in a lot of ways.


When I get stuck during my journaling time, with no idea what to write next, I reach for a proverb. There’s always something there that gooses my muse and gets the words flowing.

I have several books of proverbs that I keep close by:

 - African Proverbs from Peter Pauper Press;

- “When the Road Is Long, Even Slippers Feel Tight” A Collection of Latin American Proverbs, by Roberto Quesada.

 - Japanese Proverbs & Traditional Phrases, from Peter Pauper Press;

- The Soul Would Have No Rainbow If the Eyes Had No Tears and Other Native American Proverbs, by Guy A. Zona.


Proverbs are almost as good as world travel, because through them you can learn about a people and their beliefs. Every culture and religion has embraced the pithy proverb as a way to express values and share advice.

“You can tell a people’s character from that people’s proverbs. Therefore any friend of the Japanese will know already what he will find here: a sentimentality about flowers and a cynicism about people; a confidence in the eternal and a distrust of the immediate…” 
- From the preface to Japanese Proverbs 

Proverbs are time-honored sayings that pack a lot of meaning in a small space. For example:

Proverbs are reminders of the universality of human experience: 

A loose tooth will not rest until it’s pulled out.
- Ethiopian proverb

They can shake a finger at you: 

It’s a fine sermon about fasting when the preacher just had lunch.
- Ecuadorian proverb

Or encourage caution: 

First we drink the wine
Then the wine drinks the wine
Then the wine drinks us.
 - Japanese proverb
Proverbs can be funny:

He on whose head we would break a coconut never stands still. 
- African proverb 
Or offer encouragement:

If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come. 
- Arapaho proverb 
Some proverbs can be really obscure:

There are old men of three: children of a hundred. 
- Japanese proverb 

Sometimes a proverb seems to speak directly to the issue I am currently struggling with in my writing life, like revision:

If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail? 
- Rwandan proverb 

To me, proverbs are a poke in the ribs, a slap up side the head and sometimes a stab in the heart.

What about you? Have you ever been affected by a proverb? Ever used one to spark your writing?


  1. What a spectacular post! (although a truer title might be, "Break your head on a coconut"). Thank you, Lynn!

    Rick Kempa

    1. Thanks Rick! I think the coconut might lose in a contest with my head--it's pretty hard :-) Thanks for checking in.

  2. I've got a book of Russian Proverbs I love. Personal favorite: "When the wolf shows his teeth, he isn't smiling."

    1. I'll remember that next time you snarl, I mean, smile at me :-)

      I remember some of those proverbs in your Russian book. I think we did a freewrite with some of them. Fun stuff!

  3. Perhaps because I haven't had breakfast yet, two of my favorite sayings, although perhaps not proverbs:

    If you have to eat a toad, eat it first thing in the morning. The rest of the day will go better. (remind you of a recent post here?)

    How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

    I read yesterday of the death of the author of my favorite book about writing, On Writing Well, William Zinsser. Although not a proverb, it ought to be among writers, "Writing is hard work."

    Great post, Lynn.

    1. Oh, I'm sorry to hear about Zinsser! Got my copy of his book right here by my computer.

      And, yes, writing is hard work. No matter how many times I hear it, I keep thinking it should be easier.

      Here's a Lakota proverb, in honor of William Zinsser: "We are known by the tracks we leave behind."

      Thanks for stopping by, Art.

  4. I have never used a proverb as a writing prompt. I'll have to try it! Here are some of my favorites:

    Every person should keep a large graveyard in which to bury the faults of his friends.

    There is no better exercise for strengthening the heart than reaching down and lifting up another.

    If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere.

    I don't know who came up with them, though!

  5. Chere: please send that first proverb to all my friends, will you? So they can get to diggin'?

    Great list. Thanks for sharing!


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