Dueling Maxims, Adages, and Proverbs

Dueling Maxims, Adages, and Proverbs

Different Proverbs & Different Situations

The 17th-century Anglo-Welsh writer James Howell once said, “Proverbs may not improperly be called the philosophy of the common people.”

And the Spanish philosopher George Santayana once remarked, “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”

Maxims and proverbs condense humankind’s wisdom through the ages. Applied appropriately, proverbs are persuasive devices to convince others—through wit, humor, zing, irony, or bitterness—of implied wisdom and collective experience.

Proverbs tend to sound convincing—that is, at least until a contradictory proverb is evoked. According to American poet and essayist William Mathews, “All maxims have their antagonist maxims; proverbs should be sold in pairs, a single one being a half truth.” This discrepancy even appears in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament), as Proverbs 26:4 counsels, “do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” In the very next verse, Proverbs 26:5 urges, “answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

One of the pleasures of working with maxims, proverbs, and quotations is contemplating confirmations, counterparts, contradictions, and inconsistencies. In other words, it’s fascinating and helpful to examine how words might apply differently in various situations.

When used without qualification, proverbs sometimes cancel one-another out. The following compendium illustrates this phenomenon.

Contradicting Common Proverbs

“All that glitters is not gold.” But, “Clothes make the man.”

“Clothes make the man.” But, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” But sometimes, “Leave well enough alone.”

“Wise men think alike.” But, “Fools seldom differ.”

“Haste makes waste.” But sometimes, “Strike while the iron is hot.”

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” But sometimes, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

“Misery loves company.” But, “The more the merrier.”

“The more the merrier.” But sometimes, “Two’s company; three’s a crowd.”

“What will be, will be.” But, “Life is what you make it.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But, “Every little bit helps.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But, “The devil is in the details.”

“A penny saved is a penny earned.” But, “Penny wise, pound foolish.”

“Repentance comes too late.” But, “Never too late to mend.”

“All for one and one for all.” But sometimes, “Every man for himself.”

“Blood is thicker than water.” But, “Many kinfolk, few friends.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” But, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” But, “Actions speak louder than words.”

“Ask no questions and hear no lies.” But, “Better to ask the way than to go astray.”

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” But sometimes, “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.”

“Better be alone than in bad company.” But, “There’s safety in numbers.”

“Tomorrow is another day.” But, “Another day might be too late.”

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But, “Don’t beat a dead horse.”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

“A silent man is a wise one.” But, “A man without words is a man without thoughts.”

“There is nothing new under the sun.” But, “There is nothing permanent except change.”

“The bigger the better.” But sometimes, “Good things come in small packages.”

“Look before you leap.” But, “He who hesitates is lost.”

“Don’t talk to strangers.” But, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

“Variety is the spice of life.” But sometimes, “Don’t change horses in midstream.”

“All good things come to those who wait.” But sometimes, “Time and tide wait for no man.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day.” But, “Time and tide wait for no man.”

“A miss is as good as a mile.” But sometimes, “Half a loaf is better than none.”

“Don’t speak too soon.” But sometimes, “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Money can’t buy you love.” But, “Romance without finance can be a nuisance.”

“Never do evil, that good may come of it.” But, “The end justifies the means.”

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.” But sometimes, “Two heads are better than one.”

“There’s no fool like an old fool.” But, “An old fox is not easily snared.”

“Divide and rule.” But, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

“It’s never too late.” But, “The early bird catches the worm.”

“The early bird catches the worm.” But, “Good things come to those who wait.”

“To thine own self be true.” But, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

“With age comes wisdom.” But, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings come all wise sayings.”

“Actions speak louder than words.” But, “It’s the thought that counts.”

“It’s the thought that counts.” But, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Curiosity killed the cat.” But, “Ask and you shall receive.”

“Birds of a feather flock together.” But, “Opposites attract.”

“Ask and you shall receive.” But, “Ask no questions and hear no lies.”

“Faith will move mountains.” But, “Doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But, “You’re never too old to learn.”

“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” But, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But, “Take no for an answer.”

“Knowledge is power.” But, “Ignorance is bliss.”

“It never rains, then it pours.” But sometimes, “Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.”

“Better safe than sorry.” But, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” But, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“Silence is golden.” But sometimes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But, “Idle hands do the devil’s work.”

“Practice makes perfect.” But, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

“If one door shuts, another opens.” But, “Opportunity never knocks twice on the same door.”

“Don’t preach to the choir.” But, “Don’t cast pearls before swine.”

“Many hands make light work.” But, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

“Too many cooks spoil the broth.” But, “Two heads are better than one.”

“Don’t cross the bridge until you reach it.” But, “Forewarned is forearmed.”

“One size fits all.” But sometimes, “Different strokes for different folks.”

“The best things in life are free.” But, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

“A good beginning makes a good ending.” But, “It’s not over till it’s over.”

“Hold fast to the words of your ancestors.” But, “Wise men make proverbs; fools repeat them.”

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