Category Archives: Proverbs

English Proverb

M is 19 years old, and she is a college student. She grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She heard this proverb at elementary school age from her mother when she was complaining about a group project.

“My mom would always tell me “Two minds are greater than one” which I think is very true. Growing up when I needed some advice she’d always tell me that proverb.”

This proverb seems like a great one to tell kids who don’t want to work with others. It encourages kids to work together and learn teamwork, which are traits that parents and schools often try to instill in their kids. It’s a very old saying that seems to trace back to the Bible. It’s a great proverb because it encourages people not to be selfish. In American culture that promotes competition, people want to be the only one who comes up with a great idea and gets the credit for it. But this proverb says that people should try to attack problems together. If people work together instead of in opposition with each other, society would benefit far more from it. This seems to be a mentality in other cultures, but one that is less common in current American society.

Proverb – “Eat from the Bowl, Look from the Pot”

Mandarin (Simplified): “吃着碗里,看着锅里”
Pinyin (Simplified) : chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li
Literal translation: Eating in the bowl, looking in the pot

C is a Chinese international student from Anhui Province, Hefei studying at USC. There were a lot of pauses between sentences as C was finding the right words, as English was not his first language.
C: “This folk speech is relatively widespread in China. It’s not very local or original, but it’s more like a proverb. That kind of thing. It’s called “吃着碗里,看着锅里“ (chi zhe wan li, kan zhe guo li). My parents used that a lot with me, because when I was very young, I tend to be very protective of my food. And that’s why my parents described me as that. It translates that you’re eating the food in the bowl, and looking at the food in the pot. I remember one time when my cousin was visiting over the weekend and my parents was cooking a lot of good food. I was always the one eating the chicken leg, the best part of the chicken. And I was so protective, I licked the chicken. I was so young at the time. And my mom said that [proverb to me]. In my family, it was more about not being greedy.”

This proverb is a shorthand bit of wisdom passed down from parent to child. It condones the subject for being too greedy with food. In Mandarin, it’s also a comment on personal character. The direct English translation implies a passiveness to eating and looking, merely an observation. What’s lost from the original Chinese wording is the tone of condescension and the clear subject being the person who is eating. It is not only an observation but a warning. What is in the pot, what the eater cannot look away from, is something the bowl cannot and will not have. This proverb is not only about sharing food with others, but also a caution against selfish desire. One’s personal needs cannot always come first in every situation nor can they be met perfectly. It is not the right response to be ungrateful and expectant for a self-centered result every time, but better to practice moderation and patience with what one wants most and be understanding towards others about their own desires. This proverb’s nugget of knowledge goes past the surface level hoarding of food and deeper into human nature without becoming overbearingly moral. It exemplifies how proverbs operate in folklore well; as generational sayings that though short, have deep meaning.

“Closed mouths don’t get fed”

1. Text (proverb)

“Closed mouths don’t get fed”

2. Context 

The informant heard this from his father numerous times growing up. He and his father use and interpret this proverb as a way of saying you need to speak up for what you want because if you don’t ask, nobody knows that you want or need anything. My informant heard this proverb from his father. He characterized his father as assertive and outspoken. Growing up, it was encouraged in the informant’s household for them to speak up to be heard and use their voice, don’t be passive. He came from a large, loud family where it was uncommon for people to engage passively with one another. Almost everyone had a voice and wanted to use it, because after all, “closed mouths don’t get fed.”

3. Analysis/YOUR interpretation

I have heard this saying numerous times growing up from my grandfather and from adults in my family in general, though I’ve never heard the saying outside of the south. This is an example of a proverb, it’s a piece of metaphorical advice often given to more stereotypically soft-spoken or passive. While I’ve heard of the proverb and understand the meaning behind it, I recognize I don’t usually appreciate it when this is said to me as I feel as though it can sometimes come off as disingenuous and has a more negative connotation to me. In saying “closed mouths don’t get fed”, I interpreted it as if you don’t speak up for yourself and voice your opinion on what you want, how will anyone else know what you want or need? While this piece of advice does have some truth to it, the saying itself doesn’t seem like it would be taken as exceedingly positive when told to a more passive person. For people who are more extroverted and who thrive in social situations or gain energy/confidence from social interactions, speaking may be as necessary as eating for them, hence the comparison of closed mouths not getting food. In line with Alan Dundes’ definition, this proverb, like many others, is concise and expressive of my informant’s worldview. This proverb in particular is expressive of an assertive, outspoken view where speaking up, gets your voice heard. 

A guest is equivalent to God


“A guest is equivalent to God”


NT is my roommate at USC and a very close friend. Her parents are originally from Southern India and moved to the U.S. thirty years ago. As a family, they have moved around a bit and have lived in New York and Michigan, and now reside in Texas.

NT- There is one saying that I feel like my mom has burned into my brain, “Athithi Devo Bhavaa.” She would always say it in Hindi, but the English translation is “A guest is equivalent to God.”

Interviewer- Would she say it only when specific people were coming over?

NT- No it didn’t really matter who was coming. But if she knew someone was planning to drop by, she would always shout the phrase in Hindi as a reminder to me, especially since I am an only child (rolls her eyes).

Interviewer- Do you know of a specific origin of the phrase, or does it just come from the cultural view of how important guests are?

NT- So there’s like a story in India that apparently some of our Gods will periodically go in random people’s houses and see how they are treated. It’s like a test to make sure you are being kind and welcoming to everyone.


This folk simile originated in India as a reminder to treat everyone well. Interestingly, the phrase instructs one to treat guests not just as they would want to be treated, but as a God. This implies that one should put their guests’ wants and needs above their own, as they do with their higher powers. The second element of this folk simile is the proverbial warning attached to the origin story. It implies that any time, a test could be administered to you unknowingly, likely with consequences if you fail. The possibility that a person or a family could receive a punishment directly from a deity, is a motivator to treat everyone very well. The phrase is told even to small children, which indicates how serious it is in Indian culture.

Bottom of my shoes


“I will write your name on the bottom of my old shoes” (Σε γράφω στα παλιά μου τα παπούτσια)


EF is an eight-two-year-old woman who is like a surrogate grandma to me. She lives in Northridge, CA., but grew up in a small Greek village called Corfu; she remains very connected to her Greek heritage and culture. From her cooking to her proverbial warnings, she is filled with unique folklore that she loves to share. I facetimed EF and asked her to give me staple proverbs or sayings from her small village. She decided to share this proverb because it stood out in her mind.

EF- When a guy is very angry at another guy, he can say “I will write you on the bottom of my shoe.” That’s when they want nothing to do with each other. 

Interviewer- Can you remember a time when you heard someone say this?

EF- (in a serious tone) Yes! My ex-husband screamed it at my brother (bursts out laughing).

After she finished chuckling, she explained that it is a very serious insult but mostly exchanged between men.


Since the informant did not know when she heard this proverb, that pointed to a possible historical origin. I researched the phrase and found one explanation. According to the article, this insult dates back to a practice by a Babylonian king when firing the lords. The king would write the unlucky lord’s name on the bottom of a pair of old shoes and send them to him. This represented not only the lord’s loss of title but also that he meant nothing to the king anymore (Kontolemos, 2022). It is understandable why this is perceived as a very serious statement that is only used in intense arguments. The fact that this folk speech is still widely used in Greece illustrates how important history and tradition is in Greek culture. Beyond the Babylonian explanation, one could interpret this phrase as the person is so worthless that they belong under my shoe like trash. The theatrical nature of writing a person’s name on old shoes represents an ongoing insult because the name will never come off the shoes, just as the person who wronged you will never mean anything to you again.

Kontolemos, A. (2022, May 12). 11 greek expressions you should know. Mental Floss. Retrieved February 23, 2023, from