Proverbs and Riddles

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PROVERBS AND RIDDLES. Proverbs and riddles are pithy verbal expressions handed down over the course of many generations. Both forms are grounded in the familiar, but in opposite ways. While proverbs tend to re-familiarize the familiar, riddles tend to de-familiarize the familiar. More specifically, proverbs function like mini-allegories by embodying an abstract truism in concrete imagery drawn from familiar experience; the truism is thus reified and made "extra-familiar." For example, in the sixteenth century, the abstract truism "change occurs gradually" was reified in a vivid proverb that invoked a familiar domestic situation: "Little by little the cat eats the bacon." In contrast, riddles cause their reader to see an ordinary object in a new and extraordinary light. For example, the riddle "A little white house without door or window" prompts the reader to re-apprehend the thing implied by the riddle: "an egg." In the moment that this solution is guessed or given, the egg is perceived not merely as something to fry or hatch, but as a home or shelter, an analogue to the reader's own house. Because riddles and proverbs alike are grounded in the familiar (albeit in different ways), food and culinary situations supply the raw material of many of them.

Food Proverbs

The study of proverbs is called paremiology. Some paremiologists distinguish proverbs from maxims, saws, sententiae, and other kinds of folk sayings, but in practice these distinctions are hard to maintain. In this article, the term "proverb" is employed in its widest sense.

Over the centuries, food proverbs have enjoyed and suffered the same vagaries of popularity as proverbs in general. In ancient times, proverbs were much esteemed, as evidenced by the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, which includes many food-based maxims such as "Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats" (23:6). Aristotle, too, is reputed to have written a work on proverbs, now lost. During the Middle Ages, sermons and other didactic works popularized hundreds of proverbs, such as "He must have a long spoon that shall eat with the devil," first recorded in 1395. During the sixteenth century, numerous ancient Greek and Latin proverbs were revived thanks to the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who published a collection of three thousand proverbs derived from classical literature, including "You are decorating a cooking pot" (meaning "You are doing needless work") and "When offered turtle-meat, either eat or don't eat" (meaning "Make up your mind, one way or another"). The popularity of proverbs among learned authors increased through the seventeenth century, but then began to decline in the eighteenth century, when they came to be seen as evidence of vulgarity rather than erudition. In 1741, for example, Lord Chesterfield belittled "common proverbs" because they were "proofs of having kept bad and low company. For example, if, instead of saying that tastes are different . . . you should let off a proverb, and say 'that what is one man's meat is another man's poison' . . . everybody would be persuaded that you had never kept company with anybody above footmen and housemaids." (461)

Proverbs about food reflect, naturally, the gastronomic and culinary norms of the culture in which they arise. For example, the proverb "from eggs to apples," meaning "from beginning to end," originated in ancient Rome, where it was customary to begin a meal with eggs and end it with apples. In China, proverbs abound that mention rice or tea, including "Talk doesn't cook rice" and "Better to be deprived of food for three days than tea for one." In Azerbaijan, many proverbs refer to yogurt and halva, including "He who burns his mouth on milk will blow on yogurt when eating it" and "Your mouth won't get sweet just by saying 'halva.' " In Germany, where wine-making is common, one encounters the proverb "Big and empty, like the Heidelberg tun," an allusion to a wine cask renowned for its 58,000gallon capacity. In England, the prevalence of proverbs involving eggs attests to the long-standing importance of that foodstuff in that nation's diet; A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries cites twenty-seven egg proverbs. Some of those egg proverbs are still current, such as "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" and "As sure as eggs be eggs." Others are less familiar, such as "Better an egg in peace than an ox in war," "It is hard to shave an egg," and "Who means to have the egg must endure the cackling of the hen." Other food proverbs survive only by virtue of their being used in Shakespeare, such as "to take eggs for money," meaning "to exchange something valuable for something worthless." Still others have been obsolete for centuries, such as "to come in with five eggs," meaning "to interrupt with an idle story," while others have been rendered obsolete by changing social conditions, such as inflation: "as dear as two eggs a penny."

On the other hand, some proverbs persist even when they cease to make literal sense. The proverbial phrase "to bet dollars to doughnuts" is still current even though the rising cost of doughnuts has diminished the original disparity of the wager. Likewise, the proverbial phrase "to eat humble pie," meaning "to be forced into apologizing in a humiliating manner" remains current even though it has been largely forgotten that "humble pie" was originally "umble pie," and that the umbles were the innards of a deer, often cooked into a kind of meat pastry. The proverbial phrase "to dine with Duke Humphrey," meaning "to go hungry," is still heard occasionally, even though the origin of that expression has been lost even to paremiologists.

Like proverbs in general, many food proverbs have changed their form over time. The early-sixteenth-century proverb "Many things fall between the cup and the mouth" evolved, by the mid-nineteenth century, into the more familiar "There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip." The use of rhyme in the latter proverb is one of several literary devices that characterize many proverbs, including food proverbs. These literary devices make proverbs easier to remember, and also signify their special ratified status, rather like placing a frame around a picture. Other literary devices include alliteration (as in the fifteenth-century proverb "the more crust, the less crumb"), parallelism (as in the fourteenth-century proverb "the nearer the bone, the sweeter the flesh"), and antimetabole (as in the sixteenth-century proverb "while one wastes drink, the drink wastes him").

Proverbs, including food proverbs, continue to be invented up to this day, though perhaps not at the rate they were centuries ago. One recent addition, often heard in the more northern parts of the United States and Canada, is the ironic maxim "Don't eat yellow snow."

Food Riddles

While proverbs re-familiarize the familiar, and riddles de-familiarize the familiar, the distinction between the two forms is sometimes unclear. For example, the seventeenth-century proverb "An egg will be in three bellies in twenty-four hours" has the declaratory form of many proverbs, but in substance it is much like a riddle: the three bellies are the belly of the hen that lays it, of the oven that bakes it, and of the human who eats it. Other proverbs can easily be converted into riddles by suppressing, rather than declaring, the familiar element: the sixteenth-century proverb referred to above"while one wastes drink, the drink wastes him"becomes a riddle when expressed in this form: "As you waste it, it wastes you." Aristotle noted that riddles are also closely allied to metaphors: "Metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor" (Rhetoric book 3, chapter 2). Put another way, many riddles are merely incomplete metaphors: one half of the identity relationship is deliberately elided. For example, this Filipino riddle"A trunk of a king; if opened it cannot be shut"becomes a metaphor once the missing element is reinserted: "An egg is a trunk of a king; if opened it cannot be shut."

Also like proverbs, riddles are ancient in origin. In the ancient Greek legend of Oedipus, the Sphinx terrorized the people of Thebes when they could not solve its riddle. In the Old Testament, Samson successfully antagonized the Philistines by challenging them to solve this riddle: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness" (Judg. 14:14). The solution to the riddle was a lion, Samson having previously encountered a lion carcass that bees had filled with honey. Ninety-one ancient riddles are also preserved in the Exeter Book, a late-tenth-century manuscript collection of Anglo-Saxon literature. Of these ninety-one riddles, ten are food-or drink-related, including this one, whose bawdy double-entendres de-familiarize the everyday thing implied by the riddle:

I am a wondrous creature: to women a thing of joyful expectation, to close-lying companions serviceable. I harm no city-dweller excepting my slayer alone. My stem is erect and tallI stand up in bedand whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman's quite comely daughter will venture, bumptious girl, to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me, this curl-locked woman who squeezes me. Her eye will be wet.

The solution to this ribald riddle is "onion."

Inventing new riddles continues to be a popular activity among some authors and educators. In the nineteenth century Lewis Carroll devised riddles, including a long and elaborate food-related one, for Through the Looking Glass. In the twentieth century, J. R. R. Tolkien created many riddles for The Hobbit, including this one: "A box without hinges, key, or lid. Yet golden treasure inside is hid." The solution is familiar: "an egg."

See also Art, Food in ; Folklore, Food in ; Magic ; Metaphor, Food as ; Myth and Legend, Food in ; Religion and Food ; Symbol, Food as .


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De Proverbio: Electronic Publisher of Proverb Studies and Collections. Available at

Dobrée, Bonamy. The Letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield. Volume 2. London: Eyre and Spottiswoods, 1932.

The Exeter Book Riddles. Translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1979.

Mieder, Wolfgang. A Dictionary of American Proverbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950.

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Mark Morton

Miscellaneous Food Proverbs

Hunger is the best sauce. He is an evyll coke that can not lycke his owne lyppes. Don't cry over spilt milk. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

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Proverbs and Riddles

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