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French Proverbs Inspired English Ones

Like a fit picture, a proverb could be worth 'a thousand words'. Try to let popular wisdom into your conversation the day you're up to it, as "Un oiseau dans la main, en vaut deux dans le bois (A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush)" - whatever that is taken to mean. It is also up to you.

Great folks learn to consider things on top of historical developments or trends, and that special sort of estimation (thinking) is often much helped by select, classy proverbs. Excellent proverbs may assist a maturing individual too.

Okay Thinking


Good thinking is fit for you and me. And much fit and good can come into the one who learns to consider well before talking. One should learn to think "hm" at least initially, for it often helps to consider this and that some way or other.

Lots of people like proverbs. And maybe we have nothing better to do that try to get to some laconic or terse sayings in English out of French proverbs. If so, the ones we start out from, had better seem fit and Solomonic. And what we end up with, should appear as poignant, hopefully relevant and tidy enough in many a valuable setting and ministry. And why not also seek to keep the renditions (equivalents) or (direct) translations tied in with the original French proverbs we took off from? History shows both approaches can work well.

In fact, many typical British proverbs were handed over from French in medieval times - more or less as equivalents, and often as direct translations. Put in other words: As The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (3rd edition, 1998) shows, this process has been much more common than hitherto thought of.

Also, after Erasmus of Rotterdam published adages in the 1500s, many "international medieval" proverbs were made from Latin and Greek sayings, some of which were terse aces of learning from days gone by. "The highest right is often the highest evil" is one classy medieval proverb. It may deserve much consideration.

Just as many French proverbs derive from Latin, and very many British proverbs derive from French ones, there were other inroads as well. Let's not forget the long-range ministry of Normans, descendants of Scandinavian Vikings for most part. They took over the better half of Italy a long time ago, captured England and many other places, even in what is today Iraq, Tunesia and so on, and found it fit to collect treasures - and word-treasures should not be excluded from what they're credited with bringing to Normandy and Britain either.

For many French proverbs there is a word-for-word equivalent in English. It's due to much contact in the centuries after the Norman conquest of England in AD 1066. Normandy and England was a Norman twin realm for a hundred years after that, till the time of King Richard the Lionhearted. The contact went on for centuries after that, affecting the language, manners and rituals of the British.

This could be good to recognise and adjust to. And this too: Well selected and carefully bundled proverbs may be turned into excellent channels for learning. It's a new field of study. It should be recognised as one elongated or prolonged field of "folk pedagogy", a term that Dr. Jerome Bruner has become fond of in his later years. His book The Culture of Education is in part about it, particularly the fourth chapter. [1996]


Some French Proverbs

A note: Along with the French proverbs you get English equivalents and source information for most part. At times rather literal translations are furnished too.

À chacun selon ses oeuvres.
Give everyone his share [Belcour, p. 1].

À chaque oiseau son nid est beau.
Every bird thinks his nest the finest [Belcour, p. 2].

À l'oeuvre on connait l'artisan.
The work shows the workman [Belcour, p. 3].

A chemin battu il ne croît point d'herbe.
Grass doesn't grow on a busy street (highway) [Mertvago, p. 29].

A jeune chasseur, il faut vieux chien.
With a young hunter, one needs an old dog [Mertvago, p. 28].

Ami de plusieurs, ami de nul.
Friend of many, friend of none [Mertvago, p. 14].

Après l'amour, le repentir.
After the love, the repentance [Mertvago, p. 15].

Au besoin on connaï l'ami.
When need comes one knows one's friend. A friend in need is a friend indeed [Mertvago, p. 14].

Au long aller, peti fardeau pèse.
On a lengthy journey even a small burden weighs [Mertvago, p. 13].

Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.
Desperate diseases call for desperate remedies [Belcour, p. 5].

Besoin fait la vielle trotter (et l'endormi réveiller).
Need makes the hurdy-gurdy trot (and the deadened awake) [Mertvago, p. 22].

Brebis comptées, le loup les mange.
The wolf eas the ewes he is told of (or: as he counts them) [Mertvago, p. 25].

Ce n'est pas tout de courir bien, il faut partir a temps.
It's not enough to run well, unless you set out in due time [NN, p. 10-11].

Celui-la fait le crime a qui le crime sert.
He does the crime who profits by it [NN, p. 38-39].

C'est un grand signe de mediocrite de louer toujours moderement.
It is a great sign of mediocrity to praise everything moderately [NN, p. 42-43].

Chacun est artisan de sa fortune.
Each one is a craftsman of his own fortune [Mertvago, p. 18].

Chacun sait (nul ne sait mieux que l'âne) où le bât (le) blesse.
Each one knows where the pack wounds. No one knows better than the ass where the pack (it) wounds [Mertvago, p. 21].

Chance passe science.
Chance (luck) passes science [Mertvago, p. 27].

Chat échaudé craint l'eau froide.
A burnt child dreads the fire [Belcour, p. 13].

Chose promise, chose due.
What is promised is due [Belcour, p. 13].

Comme on fait son lit on se couche.
As you make your bed you lie [Belcour, p. 14].

Dans les petites boïtes, les bons onguents.
In the small boxes, the good ointments [Mertvago, p. 24].

Deux ancres son bons au navire.
It's good to have more than one anchor on the ship.

En petit champ croït bon blé.
In [the] small field good corn grows [Mertvago, p. 23].

Entre bride et l'éperon, de toute choses gït la raison.
Reason lies between the bridle and the spur [Mertvago, p. 25].

Faire de l'arbre d'un pressoar le manche d'un cernoir.
Spoil the horn and make the spoon. Lit. 'To make the wood of a wine press the handle of a little garden knife' [Mertvago, p. 71].

Faute de beouf, on fait labourer par son âne.
For lack of the ox, one ploughs with one's donkey [Mertvago, p. 23].

Folle et simple est la brebis qui au loup se confesse.
Insane and simple is the ewe that makes the wolf his confessor [Mertvago, p. 25].

II a mordu à I'hameçon.
He nibbled at the bait [Belcour, p. 17].

II faut casser le noyau pour avoir I'amande.
Crack the nut before you eat the kernel [Belcour, p. 19].

II n'est jamais trop tard pour bien faire.
It is never too late to mend [Belcour, p. 22].

Il est bon d'avoir des amis partout.
It is good to have friends everywhere [Belcour, p. 18].

Il faut battre le fer tandis qu'il est chaud.
Make hay when the sun shines [Belcour, p. 19].

Il faut garder une poire pour la soif.
Lay something by for a rainy day [Belcour, p. 20].

Il ne faut jurer de rien.
We must swear to nothing [Belcour, p. 21].

Il ne faut pas juger de l'arbre par l'écorce.
One should not judge the tree by the bark [Mertvago, p. 17].

Il ne faut pas juger du sac sur I'etiquette.
Do not judge of the contents by the label [Belcour, p. 21].

Il ne faut pas laisser croïtre l'herbe sur le chemin de l'amitié.
One should not let the grass grow on friendship's road [Mertvago, p. 15].

Il ne faut pas mettre tous ses oeufs dans le même panier.
Do not risk all your fortune on one chance [Belcour, p. 22].

Il n'est si bon charretier qui ne verse.
He has a fine horse that never stumbles [Mertvago, p. 28].

Il vaut mieux faire envie que pitié.
Better he envied than pitied [Belcour, p. 25].

Il vaut mieux perdre un bon mot qu'un ami.
It is better to lose a witty remark that a friend [Mertvago, p. 14].

Il y a plus d'acheteurs que de connaisseurs.
There are more purchasers than experts [Mertvago, p. 11].

Jamais chat emmitouflé ne prit souris.
A muffled cat never took mice [Mertvago, p. 28].

L'âne du commun est toujours le plus mal bâté.
The ass of the commun run is always most badly packsaddled [Mertvago, p. 16].

La bourse ouvre la bouche.
The purse opens the mouth [Mertvago, p. 25].

La destinee des nations depend de la maniere dont elles se nourrissent.
The destiny of nations depends on what they eat [NN, p. 34-35].

La jeunesse est le temps d'etudier la sagesse; la veillesse est le temps de la pratiquer.
Youth is the time to study wisdom, old age the time to practise it [NN, p. 60-61].

L'abit le moine ne fait pas. Or: L'habit ne fait pas le moine.
It is not the robe (cowl) that makes the monk [NN, p. 48-49; Fpe 34].

L'adversité rend sage.
Adversity makes wise [Mertvago, p. 12].

L'aigle n'engendre pas la colombe.
The eagle does not generate the dove. Eagles don't breed doves [Mertvago, p. 12].

L'allouette en main vaut mieiux que l'oie que vole.
The lark in hand is better than the goose that flies [Mertvago, p. 13].

L'amour et la pauvreté font ensemble mauvais ménage.
Love and poverty do bad housework together.

L'an passé est toujours le meilleur.
The year that is gone is always the best [Mertvago, p. 16].

L'arbre ne tombe pas du premier coup.
An oak is not felled at one chop [Belcour, p. 33].

L'argent est le nerf de la guerre.
Money is the nerve of war [Mertvago, p. 17].

L'argent est rond pour rouler.
The money is round to roll [Mertvago, p. 17].

L'art est de cacher l'art.
Art is to hide art. Art consists in concealing art [Mertvago, p. 18].

L'avis de la femme est de peu de prix, mais qui ne le prend pas est un sot.
The advice (opinion) of the woman is seldom much priced, but he who does not take it is stupid. A woman's advice is no great thing, but he who won't take it is a fool [Mertvago, p. 19].

Le bossu ne voit pas sa bosse, mais il voit celle de son confrère.
The uneven one does not see his bump, but sees that of his fellow-man [Mertvago, p. 24].

Le feu le plus couvert est le plus ardent.
In the coldest flint there is hot fire [Belcour, p. 29].

Le mariage met tout le monde en son ordre.
Marriage puts everyone in his place [NN, p. 48-49].

Le miel est doux, mais I'abeille pique.
Honey is sweet, but bees sting [Belcour, p. 30].

Le plus court chemin est la ligne droite.
Plain deeding is a jewel [Belcour, p. 30].

Le vent n'entre jamais dans la maison d'un avocat.
The wind never enters the house of a lawyer [Mertvago, p. 19].

Le vieux amis et les vieux écus sont les meilleurs.
The old friends and the old ecus (ecu: a currency unit - "crowns") are the best. [Écus are old French coins. The first écu, of the 1200s, was a gold coin. During the 1600s and 1700s, silver écus were made. The écu dissappeared during the French Revolution.] [Mertvago, p. 14]

Le vin est tiré, il faut le boire.
Now the ale is drawn, it must he drunk [Belcour, p. 31].

Les avares font nécessité de tout.
Miserly, greedy natures make a great need of everything.

Les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs.
Fair words butter no parsnips [Belcour, p. 31].

Les fous inventent les modes, les sages les suivent.
Fools make fashions, wise men follow them [Belcour, p. 32].

Les foux font des festins, et les sages les mangent.
Fools make feasts and wise men eat them [NN, p. 14-15].

Les gens qui ont peu d'affaires sont de tres grands parleurs.
Men who have little business are great talkers. [NN, p. 32-33].

Les grandes pensees viennent du coeur.
Great thoughts come from the heart [NN, p. 38-39].

Les premiers venus vont devant.
First come, first served [Belcour, p. 33].

L'expérience est la maîtresse des fous.
Experience is the teacher of fools [Belcour, p. 34].

Marteau d'argent ouvre porte de fer.
The money hammer opens the iron door [Mertvago, p. 18].

Mieux vaut en paix un oeuf qu'en guerre un boeuf.
Better an egg in peace than an ox in war [Mertvago, p. 23].

Où la chèvre est attachée il faut qu'elle broute.
Where the goat is tied, there it must browse [Belcour, p. 40].

Où le loup trouve un agneau, il y en cherche un nouveau.
Where the wolf finds a lamb, there he seeks another one [Mertvago, p. 12].

On apprend en faillant.
One learns while failing [Mertvago, p. 17].

On doit des egards aux vivans; on ne doit aux morts que la verite.
To the living we owe some consideration, to the dead we owe only the truth [NN, p. 30-31].

On ne peut pas peigner un diable s'il n'a pas de cheveux.
No man can flay a stone [Belcour, p. 38].

On ne peut avoir en même temps femme et bénéfice.
One cannot have woman and benefit at the same time [Mertvago, p. 21].

On ne peut contenter tout le monde et son père.
One cannot please everybody and his wife [Belcour, p. 38].

On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre.
One cannot have both the butter and the money for the butter [Mertvago, p. 22].

On ne saurait faire d'une buse un épervier.
One cannot make a buzzard a sparrowhawk [Mertvago, p. 26].

On ne va pas avec la beauté de sa femme au moulin.
One does not go to the mill with the beauty of one's wife [Mertvago, p. 21].

Quand l'arbre est tombé, chacun court aux branches.
When the tree has fallen, everybody runs to the branches [Mertvago, p. 17].

Que celui qui est sans péché lui jette la première pierre.
Those who live in a glass house should not throw stones [Belcour, p. 43].

Qui aime bien, châtie bien.
Who loves well, punishes well [Mertvago, p. 13].

Qui bête va á Rome, tel en retourne.
When a fool goes to Rome, the same fool returns from there [Mertvago, p. 22].

Qui chapon mange, chapon lui vient.
Who eats chicken, chicken comes to him [Mertvago, p. 27].

Qui garde sa femme et sa maison a assez d'affaires.
He who looks after his wife and his house has enough to do [NN, p. 76-77].

Qui n'a point argent en bourse ait miel en bouche.
Who does not have money in the purse must have honey in the mouth [Mertvago, p. 18].

Qui naquit chat court après les souris.
Who was born a cat pursues the mice [Mertvago, p. 29].

Qui peut gouverner une femme peut gouverner une nation.
He who can govern a woman can govern a nation [NN, p. 62-63].

Qui se fait brebis, le loup le mange.
Who makes herself an ewe, the wolf eats her [Mertvago, p. 25].

Qui se ressemble s'assemble.
Birds of a feather flock together [Belcour, p. 45].

Qui veut noyer son chien l'accuse de la rage.
He who would drown his dog first calls him mad [NN, p. 58-59].

Recevoir sans donner fait tourner l'amitié.
Receiving without giving turns the friendship [Mertvago, p. 15].

Sans l'argent l'honneur n'est qu'une maladie.
Without gold, honour is just some malady [NN, p. 44-45].

Souvent trop rechercher fait trop trouver aussi.
He who seeks for too much will often find too much [NN, p. 44-45].

Tel père, tel fils.
Cat after kind; or, A chip of(f) the old block [Belcour, p. 48].

Tout est bien qui finit bien.
All is well that ends well [Mertvago, p. 23].

Toutes vérités ne sont pas bonnes à dire.
All truths are not to he spoken at all times [Belcour, p. 49].

Un bon mot ne prouve rien.
A witticism proves nothing [NN, p. 72-73].

Un homme averti en vaut deux.
A man forewarned is worth two [NN, p. 74-75] "Forewarned, forearmed" [Belcour, p. 50].

Un peu d'aide fait grand bien.
Every little helps [Belcour, p. 50].

Un point fait à temps en sauve mille.
A stitch in time saves nine [Belcour, p. 50].

Une bonne action ne reste jamais sans récompense.
A good deed is not without reward [Mertvago, p. 11].

Voulez-vous cesser d'aimer? posseder la chose aimee.
To be cured of your longing you need only get what you wished for [NN, p. 28-29].

Some More

- in English translation
Better buy than borrow.

A good lawyer, a bad neighbour.

The end of passion is the beginning of repentance.

Appearances are deceiving.

Who spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

Who is angry must be pleased again.

Strech your arm no further than your sleeve.

Bacchus has drowned more men than Neptune.

Fortune helps him that's willing to help himself.

The first blow fells not the tree (the first attempt or effort may not amount to much).

The cart leads the horse; the young instruct the old (on reversed governing).

Report makes mischiefs greater than they need to be.

He that asks what he should not, hears what he would not.

One bee makes no swarm.

Beggars must be no choosers.

Ill seed, ill weed (As you sow, so shall you reap).

One turn serves another.

A new besom sweeps clean.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Birds of a feather flock together.

Don't bark if you can't bite.

He that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing.

Boys will be boys.

Better buy than borrow.

Charity begins at home.

A ragged colt may make a good horse.

A dry cough is the trumpeter of death.

All is not lost that is delayed.

In too much discourse, truth ist lost.

Give a dog a bad name and hang him. (laconic, or exposing things)

It is very hard to shave an egg.

What can't be cured, must be endured.

The eye of the master does more than both his hands.

Who never climbed, never fell.

First come, first served.

Every flow has its ebb.

Forewarned, forearmed.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Save a thief from the gallows and he will cut your throat.

Tell me with whom you go, and I'll tell what you do.

What is sauce [good] for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Fresh fish and new-come guests smell when they are three days old.


French proverbs, proverbes français, proverbs of France, Literature  

A BRIEFING. The selected, old collections here are rather large, with the exception of the charming, slender book by "NN" (Anonymous). The author may be C. Stojanovitch, but I have not got it confirmed. When there is no information as to who is the author(s) of a book, the ordinary procedure is to have the publisher there instead. I chose "NN" in this case, for the sake of simplicity.
     Among the more newly published books in the list, two large ones by Maloux (Larousse) and Dournon are in French only. And the book by Brezin-Rossignol is larger than that of Mertvago.

Belcour, G., comp. French Proverbs with English Equivalents: A Selection of the Most Used French Proverbs. London: Edward Stanford, 1882.

Brezin-Rossignol, Monique. Comprehensive Bilingual Dictionary of French Proverbs. Paperback ed. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997.

Bruner, Jerome. The Culture of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Dournon, Jean-Yves. Le Dictionnaire des proverbes et dictons de France. Édition 9. Paris: Hachette, 2010.

Flonta, Teodor. A Dictionary of English and French Equivalent Proverbs. Bilingual edition. Hobart, Tasmania: De Proverbio, 2001.

La Mésangàre, Pierre de. Dictionnaire des proverbes français. Troisieme edition. Paris: Treuttel et Würtz, 1823.

Leroux de Lincy, Antoine Jean Victor. Le livre des proverbes français, précédé de recherches historiques sur les proverbes français et leur emploi dans la littérature du moyen âge et de la renaissance. Paris: Adolphe Delahays, 1859.

Maloux, Maurice. Dictionnaire des proverbes, sentences et maximes. Paris: Larousse, 2009.

Mertvago, Peter. Dictionary of 1000 French Proverbs. Hippocrene Books. New York, 1996.

Möller, Ferdinand tr. Proverbes francais. München: Dtv, 1979.

NN. National Proverbs: France. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1913 (18--?).

Simpson, John and Jennifer Speake, eds. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 1998.

Speake, Jennifer, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. ⍽▢⍽ The debt from Medieval times of English proverbs to French and other continental ones is still mentioned, as in the third edition (the book above), but rephrased, toned down. Yet the fact remains.

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