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Proverb – American

Posted By Claire Nickerson On May 11, 2011 @ 2:40 am In Folk speech,Proverbs | Comments Disabled

The informant learned the following proverb from his father:

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

The informant interprets it to mean that “you can’t, you know, you can’t produce greatness out of nothing. No, you have to have the basic ingredients to create what you are attempting to make.” The informant recalls that his father often said the proverb to his mother when she complained about his cutting corners: “Since he was a very handy person, he—y—he, um, he jury-rigged whenever he could, but he understood that there were limitations to doing so. And when it was brought up that there were limitations—which it generally was, because my mother was a very nitpicky person—uh, his response was invariably, ‘You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.’” The informant himself occasionally uses the proverb when it seems relevant, but only when he feels that the person he’s speaking to will understand him: “Most people don’no [sic] what a sow is any more.”

When asked what he thinks of the proverb, the informant says, “I feel that it’s, uh, it’s terminology is pretty out of date, but t’lesson is soun’.”

A sow is, of course, a female pig, and the proverb most likely is a remnant of times when farming was the major occupation in America. The comparison between the silk purse and the sow’s ear seems likely to stem from the delicacy of the ear and the way the light shines through it as through silk. A full-grown sow is very large and its ear could conceivably be large enough to use as a purse. The fact that the informant’s father addressed it to his mother is telling and could even be considered sexist; of course, it would be a woman who would want a silk purse and be foolish enough to think that it was possible to make one out of the ear of a pig.


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URL to article: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=6668