Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant relayed a personally significant proverb and the legend associated with it.
Informant: Okay, so I’ve heard this story told a lot of different ways because like apparently Jewish people tell the story as part of a Jewish religious moment, but I’m not Jewish and my mother used to tell the story and she would take all religion out of it. So, what I know is that basically this king was on a journey to find a ring that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. The king eventually finds this ring with the words “This, too, shall pass” engraved on the inside. And so, for the happy man, it’s supposed to remind the happy man that bad things can come at any moment, so you really need to be like in the moment and present and enjoy that and try to extend it. And it makes the sad man happy because it’s also supposed to tell you that bad things come to an end, so like good things will eventually have to come. So, I don’t know… I just really like that proverb: “This, too, shall pass.”
Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant is unsure of the proverb’s true cultural and/or religious origins, the proverb’s meaning and the legend surrounding it has remained with her for years. The proverb almost appears to be a family mantra, as it was taught to the informant by her mother. The informant appears to refer to the proverb during times of happiness, as a remainder to savor every moment, and during times of sadness, as a reminder that her misfortunes will also end.
Interpretation: The proverbial phrase is simultaneously metaphorical, rhetorical, and short — all the criteria for a proverb. It is interesting to hear the tales and legends surrounding such phrases, as many of them would lack the same impact or clarity without the context in which they first originated. While proverbs are usually fixed phrases, the double meaning of this proverb demonstrates how they typically do not have fixed meanings, and their significance can readily change in different contexts. Additionally, the fact that the informant was told the proverb by her mother shows how proverbs typically hold a lot of vernacular authority. Her mother likely could have taught her the same lesson using different wording, but the history of the proverb and the fact that it is commonly heard in society gives the impression that her mother is imparting community wisdom on her daughter.