Category Archives: Proverbs

Deceiving Yourself 掩耳盗铃

Background: My friend and I were talking about how different countries cope with the pandemic. We found that a few politicians around the world didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough at first and pretended that it was only a small problem. My friend described them as “掩耳盗铃”.

Main piece:

掩耳盗铃

Pinyin: yan er dao ling

Transliteration: Cover your ears and steal the doorbell.

Informant’s explanation of the phrase: 

I think it came from a story. Well I’m not sure if it really happened, probably just a fable. A thief went to another person’s place because he wants their doorbell somehow. He tries to steal it, but he realized the doorbell would ring! So his genius solution is to cover his ears and then steal the bell. His logic is like he wouldn’t hear a sound, so other people won’t either. This dumbass got caught of course.

Context: As it was used by the informant in describing politicians who refused to take action, the proverb is used with irony to describe people who clearly understand what they do is wrong but still carry on with self-deception. 

Analysis: This particular form of proverb, 成语 (cheng yu), is very similar to another form of Chinese folk speech, the enigmatic folk similes. Both contain double meanings, with one layer of superficial storyline and a deeper connotation of advise, mockery, or knowledge. The difference, however, is that cheng yu often adhere to a uniform form of strictly four characters. While cheng yu are also proverbs that illustrate folk wisdom, in most cases the user must be familiar with the legend or history they allude to in order to use them in common speech. Cheng Yu thus becomes an identity marker. They reflect the culture, values, and identity of their “folk”, as well as a bigger reservoir of folklores that provide them with derivative connotations.

For a different version of this proverb, see

郑荣萍. “掩耳盗铃.” 中学生英语:少儿双语画刊 5 (2012): 13–13. Print.

“Mountains do not meet but people do”

The original language and script: Munte cu munte nu se-ntâlnește, dar om cu om se-ntâlnește.

The original is represented in Roman form as a Romanian proverb

The transliterated proverb: Mountain with mountain does not meet, but man with man meets

The fully translated proverb: A mountain doesn’t meet a mountain, but a man meets a man.

H: My mum always told me mountains do not meet but people do. I tell that to people till this day.

The informant communicated that this saying is one that always gives them hope of seeing someone again. That their paths will cross again for them to come face to face. It’s a reminder, for most, of how small our worlds really are. We are more connected than we know.

守株待兔 – Guarding the tree to wait for a rabbit

“In Chinese, we have 成语, “cheng yu,” which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script: 守株待兔

Phonetic (Roman) script: Shǒuzhūdàitù

Transliteration: guard tree wait rabbit

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: Okay so the story of this is that one day, there was like this wood-cutter guy and he saw a rabbit in the forest. He saw the rabbit run into a tree stump and it like, died immediately. And so he took it home and ate it and he was like, really happy. So he was like, oh if I just wait by this tree stump another one will come and kill itself, so I never need to hunt anymore! And then, he like, died of hunger.

MW: So then what does it mean?

EW: It means that like, basically if something good happens and then you get lazy, you’ll…die of hunger, I guess! It’s basically a way of saying, “don’t be lazy” or don’t think that good things will always happen the same way. 

Context:

My informant was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. Her mom would tell her this story when she was being lazy, and she enjoys this story because it reminds her of her time in China and just generally makes her feel connected to Chinese culture. Especially given that she lives in America now, she notes, staying connected to chinese culture is important. 

Thoughts

I think the idea of good things not always happening in the same way is really interesting. It’s interesting because it’s of course an idea that we have in western culture, but no one ever really puts it into words like this, and I think that’s the beauty of the Chinese cheng yu. They are full of concepts that we don’t have words for in the West, yet still perfectly encompass these nebulous ideas.

井底之蛙 – The frog at the bottom of the well

“In Chinese, we have 成语 which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script:  井底之蛙

Phonetic (Roman) script: Jǐngdǐzhīwā

Transliteration: frog at the bottom of the well

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: There’s this classic cheng yu, 井底之蛙 (jing di zhi wa), which is just this frog who lives at the bottom of the well, and it thinks that the world is the size of the well. And whenever birds come and tell it that the world is much bigger, it refuses to believe it.

MW: And what do you think of this?

EW: Well, I just think it’s kinda cool because it’s a lot deeper than just the Princess and the Frog story. Yeah. Chinese people have good sayings. 

MW: And what does it mean?

EW: Well basically it means that some people have a very narrow way of viewing the world, I guess. Like, you think that you know everything but really you’re letting your perspective and biases hold you back from understanding the truth of things.

Context:

My informant, EW, was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. This piece was collected over a phone call, when talking about Chinese traditions.

Thoughts

I like this cheng yu because it’s reminiscent of the Platonian cave theory, and in general I believe a lot of other cultures have similar ideas about the world not being what it seems and that we are only viewing a small portion of what the reality of our universe is. I think it’s interesting to see how other cultures all come up with similar ideas, and how they express them differently.

Sana, sana, colita de rana – a Spanish children’s rhyme

Spanish: Sana sana colita de rana si no sana hoy sanara mañana

Translation: Heal, heal, little tail of the frog. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow.

Full translation

AG: This is something that parents tell their children basically, when they complain about something hurting or something going wrong. It rhymes, too, which is why kids like it and why people remember it. It’s basically saying that it’s okay if something isn’t fixed right now, because it’ll be fixed by tomorrow on it’s own. So don’t worry about it too much.

Background:

The informant, AG, was born in the US. His parents are from Mexico, specifically Jalisco and Hidalgo. AG remembers this rhyme because his parents used to tell it to him.

Context

This story was collected over a zoom call. I asked a group of friends what things their parents used to tell them when they were little, and when this rhyme came up, they all laughed in acknowledgement. That makes me think that this must be a fairly popular saying.

Thoughts:

This rhyme is interesting because I feel like it is more meaningful than a lot of other American rhymes for children (the main, and actually only one, that I can think of being “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” which is not very deep). The fact that this was the first thing that AG thought of spoke to its prominence, and also probably that it’s a good representation of Spanish rhymes for children. I once spoke to a songwriter, MW, who said that it is a lot more difficult to come up with meaningful songs in English than Japanese and Chinese, simply because there are so many more words/sounds that rhyme in Japanese in Chinese. In English, a lot of common words end in a rhyme with “ee,” “oo,” or “ay” and if it doesn’t, then it’s a little harder to rhyme with anything else in a casual way. I wonder if this is the same for Spanish, because then it would explain why we have no common meaningful rhymes for children where Spanish might have more.

Fail Faster

Piece
On my robotics team, we follow the saying “fail faster”. Starting from our first meeting, to our last match at champs, our design mentor always tells us to fail faster. By failing faster, we innovate faster. Failing faster encourages us, regardless of subteam, to think outside the box; to think big. When we know that something doesn’t work, we reflect off of it. What went well, what didn’t go well. This reflection helps us find a design or a plan of attack that works best for our team needs. We pass down the motto of fail faster both through mentors and students. Mentors always encourage us to fail faster, but so do the students. Like mentioned before, we encourage students regardless of subteam to think about side the box. Have a crazy design for a climber, or a new idea for an outreach event, let the team hear it.
Context
The informant shared this via an electronic platform of individuals who participate in the international robotics program in a conversation about team mottos. The informant is a student on their robotics team where the motto has been passed down from student to student and shared by older students and the team mentors. The motto “fail faster” is not the official motto of the team, but is the one that students are familiar with and feel the team works by. It has also become a motto for the students as they become engineering students and adults.
My Thoughts
This is an unofficial motto of my own robotics team, though less so than the informant. I have heard it in other teams as well as in some start-up level engineering companies and SpaceX. The idea is that if you just get something out and see it fail, you’ll move faster towards the right solution than trying to iterate in theoretical space until the design is perfect. This motto encourages members of those teams and companies to see failure as a learning opportunity more than anything. It tries to build a collaborative culture that pushes for innovation because they are okay if the mechanism doesn’t work. This motto can then overflow out of the workplace as individuals become more willing to take chances in life and try something new. They are taught to look at failure as an opportunity to learn and to make the most of it is coming up with a new solution or way forward. Furthermore, encouraging failure promotes inclusiveness. New members don’t have to be afraid of giving an idea because failure is something everyone does and experiences and the faster they get around to doing it, the more they will learn.

Meaning Behind The Proverb “In The Land of The Blind, The One Eyed Man is King.”

Main Piece:

Original Text (Latin): “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.”

Translation: “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” 

Meaning as told by my informant:

“It means that if everything is bad, and one thing is less bad, then it’s automatically the best. It plays on the idea of ‘best’ being a relative term. So literally speaking, someone who has sight in one eye can see more than someone who is blind. Therefore, he’s the best. He rules. In life, if you’re better than people at something, even if you’re not even good at it, you’ll be the best. It’s winning by default. If you were playing a game and the other team forfeited, your team won just because it didn’t quit. You didn’t do anything, but you still did more than the other kids.” 

Background: 

My informant is my mother, who grew up hearing this phrase and doesn’t remember learning it. When I asked her if she knew the saying’s origin, she said “it must’ve come somewhere with a king, so it’s probably European.” She likes the saying because it puts things in perspective: “Once you enter the real world, nothing is perfect. A lot of life is just getting things done the best you can. It’s not like in school where there are grades. Many times, the things that are best aren’t even very good. That can be very comforting or very concerning, depending on your belief system. I think it’s kind of beautiful.” 

Context: 

I am currently in quarantine at my informant/mother’s house, and this piece was collected while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table. 

Thoughts: 

I had always heard this saying in the context of someone getting something by default; they didn’t work hard for it, but they worked harder than others. However, after some research, I learned this specific phrasing is taken from an Erasmus quote in Latin that dates back to 1500, which is likely based off of a Hebrew excerpt from Genesis in the Old Testament “בשוק סמייא צווחין לעווירא סגי נהור”, which translates to “In the street of the blind, the one eyed man is called the Guiding Light.” Once I saw that this proverb is Biblical, it gave me a new perspective on my mother’s idea that it’s “kind of beautiful.” In the Bible, Jesus always says people are perfectly imperfect. While the English proverb in particular is competitive, it also shows that sometimes, even the best people aren’t perfect. I think this saying is a good example of how a proverb can change over time. Biblically, it means that we are all human, and we shouldn’t be so hard on each other. But today, it generally means someone wasn’t good, they were just better. While I don’t imagine myself using this proverb in its original context, it does give me a new appreciation for the saying itself. 

For more information on the proverb’s origin:

Wiktionary. “In-the-Land-of-the-Blind-the-One-Eyed-Man-Is-King.” 

Meaning Behind The Proverb “Hope For The Best, Prepare For The Worst”

Main Piece: 

Original Proverb: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” 

Meaning as told by my informant: 

“It’s honestly pretty self explanatory. It’s good to be an optimist… you should always root for what you want and have faith. However, you can’t be naive about it. You should always have some kind of plan B or safety net if things don’t go as planned. The idea of this line is that you have to balance those two things. Offence and defense. Feet on the ground, head in the clouds… dream big, but be okay if things don’t work out.” 

Background:

My informant is my father, who is a retired doctor. Although he was a surgeon, his work mainly consisted of him doing expert witness work in legal cases. He first heard this proverb while preparing for a case, and he still primarily associates the saying with attorneys. However, he believes it applies to all contexts of life. While he’s a big fan of proverbs and jokes in general, this one is likely his favorite. As his child, I can vouch that he says this all the time. 

Context: 

While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call. 

Thoughts: 

To me, this proverb will always be my father’s best advice. Having been involved in the performing arts since a young age, I have countless distinct memories of my father reciting this proverb to me as he picked me up from auditions. He said it before I opened every college admission letter. No matter what I was doing, I could always count on him telling me to “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” I don’t think of it as being optimistic or skeptical, it’s just real. One of the things I love about this proverb is that it can apply to not just any situation, but any culture. I briefly Googled this proverb after my interview, and found that there really is no origin to it. There are countless articles with countless nationalities. I think this saying speaks to the human experience in general: we’re all just trying to live life the best we can. We want to see the beauty in the world, but not be hurt by life’s struggles. It’s theater’s drama and comedy, or Chinese mythology’s Yin and Yang. We are all trying to find a balance. 

“A terrapin and the moon” (月と鼈)

Original Script : 月と鼈

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Tsuki to suppon

Transliteration : A terrapin and the moon

Full Translation : Two completely opposite beings

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : You can think of terrapin as a small turtle. I think it’s other name is a soft-shelled turtle, but it’s basically the same thing except that terrapins are smaller than turtles and stay in the mud of rivers. The reason why they compare a terrapin and the moon is because of the fact that they are similar because they are both round like a circle, but also very different. While the moon is often described as a bright and aesthetic figure up in the sky, a terrapin stays under the dark, wet mud. This proverb is used when comparing two objects or people that are completely different beyond comparison. 

Analysis :

I thought this proverb possibly expresses the Japanese society’s affection for the moon. There are a lot of traditional stories like ‘the story of Genji’ where a character wakes up in the middle of the night and stares at the moon for a long time, admiring its beauty. It was interesting how they chose the moon over the sun, which is also a symbol that is round in shape and admired by a lot of cultures. 

“A Kappa carried away by a river” (河童の川流れ)

Original Script : 河童の川流れ

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Kappa no kawanagare

Transliteration : A Kappa carried away by a river

Full Translation : Even experts make mistakes and no one is perfect

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : Kappa is a Japanese traditional mythical creature that lives in the water. Even though they still can survive outside water, they need to keep themselves moist enough to live. Like this, they are very water-friendly creatures. This proverb talks about how a Kappa is being carried away in the river while they are experts in swimming. It indicates how they have made a mistake and are being carried away. It doesn’t mean that they are dead through! It just means that even an expert makes a mistake sometimes. 

Analysis :

I liked this proverb because it adds humor and makes the audience think about a water-based mythical creature floating around in the river water because of their mistake. Other than the humor, this piece also tells the audience that not everyone is perfect and even experts would make mistakes in certain situations. The origin of this proverb is unknown, but a Korean version of this proverb is called “even a monkey falls off a tree sometimes (원숭이도 나무에서 떨어질때가 있다)”. This Korean version is a possible oikotype of this proverb because Kappas are not believed in Korean societies. Thus, they took out the Japanese mythical creature out of it and replaced it with a monkey, who is an expert in climbing trees and vines.