Meet the 'proverbial' scholar
Wolfgang Mieder has collected more than 10,000 items relating to truths in 10 words or less.
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Proverbs can have a dark side, though. Whether used by Hitler against Jews or by Americans against racial minorities, proverbs "can be very dangerous," Mieder says.Skip to next paragraph
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Longstanding proverbs in the Western world generally come from three sources: antiquity, the Bible, and Medieval Latin. But for many, it's difficult to trace the origin. "The buck stops here" is commonly associated with President Harry Truman, but Truman had heard the proverb used by a judge, Mieder says.
Sometimes it's easier to see when a proverb is dying. To illustrate, Mieder quizzes me on the meaning of "Cobbler, stick to your last." I know that a cobbler fixes shoes, but I've never heard of the foot-shaped equipment called a last. Mieder explains that this means: Stick to what you're good at.
Mieder traces the beginning of his love affair with proverbs to his time as a PhD student at Michigan State University in the late 1960s – when he took a German folklore course taught by Stuart Gallacher. "Two weeks were dedicated to proverbs and then it clicked – it stuck with me," he says.
He glances around his office, reverently pointing out framed portraits of "giants" in his field, which share wall space with proverb art and photos of students. Over there is Archer Taylor, author of the seminal 1931 book "The Proverb." Over here is an expert from Finland, and another from Russia. "There's one like me pretty much in every country," he says.
He turns quietly nostalgic when he notes that many of his friends have died, including American folklorist Alan Dundes. He hands me a published version of his long-running correspondence with Dundes, saying, "This I think shows you a friendship among crazy people."
Mieder says he's often accused of being a workaholic, and 95 percent of the time he can laugh it off. "Then there's that 5 percent of the time where it hurts.... Some of the old-fashioned work ethics are not all bad."
He credits his very understanding wife of nearly 40 years, Barbara. She lets him enjoy his work, he says, "but I've got plenty of time to do other things."
Mieder shares the fruits of his labor everywhere from elementary school classrooms to Rotary luncheons (and it's a given at faculty meetings, he says, "that little Wolfgang will come up with a little bit of wisdom"). For presentations, he can choose from among more than 10,000 slides he's put together over the years.
Most people in the world doing dissertations on proverbs eventually correspond with Mieder or visit his international archive, which is so voluminous that he's had to split it between his home and a room down the hall from his office.
Standing in that room, he rifles through newspaper clippings in a box, delighting in the antiproverbs he's found in headlines. Three blue ceramic monkeys sit on a shelf nearby – seeing, hearing, and speaking no evil.
Suddenly Mieder reminds me that he hasn't yet told me his favorite proverb. Can he really have a favorite? Just minutes before he was tipping his chair onto its back legs and talking about proverbs like a grandpa on the porch praising his precious grandchildren.
But Mieder is a decisive man. " 'Different strokes for different folks' is my favorite proverb," he says. He traces it back to 1950s African-American culture, noting that a song by Sly & the Family Stone popularized the phrase in the 1960s. Images flash in my mind from the TV show "Diff'rent Strokes," which spanned my childhood in the 1970s and 80s.
"I would argue it had to grow on American ground, because it doesn't tell you what to do. It says, 'Accept the differences in people,' " Mieder says. "I think it's a truly liberating proverb."