Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The proverbial language of the Great Plains is as varied as the landscape and culture of this vast area of North America that stretches from Canada to Mexico. With English being the dominant language, traditional proverbs and their wisdom, as well as proverbial sayings with their colorful metaphors, were brought to this continent by British settlers and abound throughout the United States and Canada. In fact, such standard texts as "The early bird catches the worm," "First come, first served," and "Honesty is the best policy," as well as such common proverbial sayings as "A feather in your cap," "Hit the nail on the head," and "On the tip of my tongue" are known and used in oral and written communication in all parts of the world where English is spoken. They belong to the basic stock of proverbial utterances in the English language, and they certainly appear frequently in the verbal communication of people living in the Great Plains.

Naturally, not all proverbial texts can be traced back to British sources. Every region, state, province, or country also develops its own homegrown metaphors, which through repeated use develop into new proverbs and sayings. This is also true for the Great Plains, of course, but it must be noted that it is usually extremely difficult to ascertain the specific regional origin and distribution of proverbial texts. Fortunately, the American Dialect Society undertook a major proverb collection exercise between 1945 and 1985 that resulted in 250,000 references, which have now been registered and annotated in A Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992). This massive collection identifies whether a particular text is known generally throughout the United States and/ or Canada, and if it is not, locates the state or province where it was collected and registered. Impressive as this information might be, it is nevertheless of limited value since only English- language texts were collected. Foreign-language proverbs and sayings from the various immigrant groups and Native Americans are lacking, and the same is true for many texts from ethnic groups such as African Americans, Mexican Americans, Volga Germans, and Ukrainians in Canada.

For some states, small special proverb collections have been assembled, notably for Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas. As expected, they contain primarily standard English proverbs, but there are at least some truly regional texts among them that reflect the life and mores of the inhabitants of the Plains, with its ranches, prairies, wheat fields, horses, and cattle. A few examples from Colorado are: "Money greases the axle," "Keep your feet in the stirrups," "To not have sense enough to pound sand into a rat hole," "As cold as yesterday's pancakes," "Only fools and tenderfeet predict the weather in Colorado," "As big as a horse and almost as smart," and "Lower than a snake's belly in a wagon track." Among the texts collected in Kansas are: "You can build a house but you have to make a home," "Mud thrown is ground lost," and "A dry well pumps no water." From Nebraska stem such proverbs and sayings as "Where there's room in the heart, there's room in the house," "Don't holler before you're hurt," and "As safe as a cow in the stockyards." And the large state of Texas might have originated such proverbial utterances as "Don't waste your ammunition on a dead duck," "To have about as much use for (something) as a hog has for a sidesaddle," "So lazy that grass grows under your feet," and "Don't kick until you're spurred." Of course, there are also such stereotypical sayings as "Rich as a Texan and as full of hot air," "Cold as a well-digger's lunch in Nebraska," and "Hot as corn in Kansas in August." As can be seen, such regional sayings often contain their dose of humor and ridicule, and they can quickly be changed by substituting one state's name for another. Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that the geographical borders of states or provinces do not hinder proverbs and sayings from spreading beyond them. It is extremely difficult to pinpoint the precise origin of any given saying, and it is better to speak of proverbs that are current in a particular region rather than claiming too quickly that they are indigenous to it.

The situation is just as vexing when one considers the proverbs and sayings that the various immigrant groups brought to the Great Plains. Books have been assembled of Mexican and Spanish proverbs in current use in Spanish in New Mexico, Texas, and southern Colorado. Among this rich verbal lore are proverbs (in English translation) like "Don't look for three feet on a cat," "Whoever is burnt by milk is even afraid of cottage cheese," and "Faces we see, hearts we don't know." The Germans brought along proverbs like "The morning hour has gold in its mouth," "Old love does not rust," and "You can't make good hay from poor grass," and the Swedish settlers still say "Dust is always dust, however near to heaven it may be blown," "A tall house is empty under the rafters," and "No one thinks of the snow that fell last year." Czech immigrants employ proverbs like "Custom is rust that mocks at every file," "The farmer's footprints make the field fertile," and "Young people and dogs take many useless steps in an hour." Among Chinese railroad laborers were such proverbs as "Even dust, if accumulated enough, will form a mountain," "Through old things we learn new things," and "Ten fingers cannot be all the same size." Jewish traders and merchants brought along such Yiddish proverbs as "Dumplings in a dream are not dumplings but a dream," "Words should be weighed and not counted," and "One cannot live by another's wits." And the Ukrainians in Canada still use proverbs like "The plowman has no time for mischief," "The farmer's hands are muddy and black, but his loaves are sweet and white," and "Another's fur coat does not warm you as your own." While most of these proverbs are cited in their original language, some of them have been translated into English over time and have gained a more general currency. This is especially true for the German proverb Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm and the proverbial saying Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten, which have become quite well known throughout North America as "The apple does not fall far from the tree" and "To throw the baby out with the bath water."

There are also, of course, the proverbs of African Americans who moved north from Texas all the way to Canada trying to escape prejudice and looking for jobs. Some of their proverbs go back to slavery, such as "Every bell you hear is not the dinner bell" (there was also the "rising bell" in the morning that called the slaves to work) and "The quicker death, the quicker heaven." Other proverbial wisdom from the black experience is shown in such texts as "Scraping on the bottom of the meal bin is mighty poor music," "A robin's song is not pretty to the worm," and "When bugs give a party they never ask the chickens."

But while there are at least some collections of African American proverbs and proverbial sayings from the Plains (primarily Texas), very little is known about the proverbial language of Native Americans. Anthropologists, folklorists, and linguists have hitherto registered only very few proverbs of Native Americans. It is even argued that their tribal languages are basically void of any proverbial language. This is proven false by at least the few texts that have been collected and annotated. From the Crow Indians of Montana are such texts as "When pine needles turn yellow" (a proverbial phrase characterizing an impossibility), "To be like the one who wanted to catch the porcupine" (referring to a person who persists in a hopeless enterprise), and "To be like the turtle that was thrown into the water" (applied to people feigning dislike for what they really crave). The entire stock of Native American proverbs collected thus far does not even number 300, and much work remains to be done to register this treasure trove of folk wisdom among Native Americans of the Great Plains and elsewhere.

The proverbial language of the Great Plains is thus a "mixed bag," to use a folk metaphor. While many texts can be traced back to Anglo- American traditions, the various immigrant groups, as well as Native Americans and African Americans, have also added much linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity to this basic stock of proverbs and proverbial sayings. Field research among the inhabitants of the Great Plains would uncover many more hitherto unrecorded proverbs and proverbial sayings that bear witness to the rich and diverse cultural traditions of the heartland of North America.

Wolfgang Mieder University of Vermont

Glazer, Mark, ed. A Dictionary of Mexican American Proverbs. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Mieder, Wolfgang. American Proverbs: A Study of Texts and Contexts. Bern Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1989.

Mieder, Wolfgang, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie B. Harder, eds. A Dictionary of American Proverbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Previous: Play Party | Contents | Next: Quilting

XML: egp.fol.036.xml