Meet the 'proverbial' scholar

Wolfgang Mieder has collected more than 10,000 items relating to truths in 10 words or less.

Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Wolfgang Mieder, a renowned expert on proverbs, in his office at the University of Vermont in Burlington. The walls of his office are decorated with proverb paraphernalia from around the world.

Paremiology – the study of proverbs, from the Greek "paroimia." I stumble across this curious word in my background research, but I haven't a clue what it really means until I meet Wolfgang Mieder in the office he shares with his proverb paraphernalia at the University of Vermont.

This animated gentleman has built up a worldwide reputation during his 30-plus years of reveling in the common phrases people use to persuade, humor, or moralize.

But the scope of Professor Mieder's devotion isn't fully apparent until he hands over a volume of his international bibliography of proverbs. (He has annotated entries for more than 7,000 publications, and by the end of May that number will have climbed to include all 10,000 publications in his archive.) A chance opening to the "M" section reveals page after page full of references to books and articles authored by "Mieder, Wolfgang."

"It's kind of sick, yah?" he says, his German accent persisting after four decades in the United States. He often jokes his passion keeps him out of trouble. "Just imagine what I'd be doing if I weren't doing this!" He lets out a quick belly laugh before getting back to business.

In the index, he notes, you can look up "anything you want – from mathematics to sex to love to animals to meteorology.... Proverbs are ubiquitous and they deal with every aspect of life. That's what has fascinated me."

What, exactly, is a proverb? "A concise statement of an apparent truth, which has had, has, or will have currency," he says, adding that it's generally 10 words or less. "You need ready-made formulaic expressions that you can pull out of your drawer, so to speak."

Proverbs are not universal truths. Indeed, they often contradict each another: Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but out of sight, out of mind.

We all make alterations when we know a proverb but it doesn't quite fit. Mieder admits some pride at having coined a term for this that has caught on in international scholarship: Antiproverb – "an intentional parody or play with an existing proverb." Think of this bumper-sticker slogan: A woman's place is in the House and Senate.

"Shakespeare was the greatest modifier of existing proverbs [in English]," he suggests, and that's one reason his works often perplex students.

Politics is one topic he's come back to again and again. Professor Mieder and a colleague searched 40,000 pages of Winston Churchill's writings and speeches to find proverbs beyond the well-known "Strike while the iron's hot." He once studied the inaugural speeches of every US president.

When researching the proverbs of Frederick Douglass for a book, he became enamored of the abolitionist statesman. "He pushed me over to become an American citizen," says Mieder, who switched allegiances just four years ago. "Look at that handsome man," he says, tapping the picture on the finished book's cover.

Poetry, art, law. You name the subject and Mieder can give you a proverb as if he's pulling a quarter out of your ear.

Most of us aren't proverbial magicians. We can think of proverbs only when the context is right. Average people know about 300 proverbs in their native tongue, Mieder says. It's called the "paremiological minimum."

Mieder is so prolific partly because he challenges himself along with his students (he has taught various subjects in the Department of German and Russian here since 1971). He often writes a paper at the same time his students have one due.

Recently he dared his advanced German class to produce a book with him, in German. "Every paper needs to be publishable," he told them, "No child left behind!" One chose to look at proverbs in James Bond Movies, others opted for the Bible, Valentine's Day cards, and Johnny Cash lyrics. As Mieder shows me the book, he is so exuberant that his petite frame seems taller, as if he's standing on tiptoe.

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.

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.

To replace fading references to "carrying coals to Newcastle," Mieder has been trying to coin a new proverb by saying that redundancies are like "carrying maple syrup to Vermont."

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."

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