A proverb is a short saying that gives advice or expresses truth. Proverbs aren’t usually literal sayings; proverbs use figurative language to make a statement about life. Usually a proverb is very well known because of its popular use in colloquial language. Keep reading for proverbs examples around the world and their meanings, and learn more about the values people share.
American and British proverbs make up much of English colloquialisms. Some examples of English proverbs include:
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
Meaning: Taking care of yourself leads to success and productivity.
“It's no use locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.”
Meaning: Fixing a mistake won’t help after the consequences have happened.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.”
Meaning: People prefer sharing good news over bad news.
“'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
Meaning: The experience of having loved someone is more valuable than being alone.
- “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Meaning: Don’t criticize others for something you also do.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Meaning: Children often resemble their parents in both appearance and behavior.
“The poor carpenter blames his tools.”
Meaning: Take ownership of your mistakes instead of finding blame elsewhere.
“When you want to make an omelet, you need to break a few eggs.”
Meaning: Reaching a goal requires sacrifice.
Proverbs from African nations educate and inspire those who use them. They may come from all over the African continent, but these proverbs express deeply held beliefs shared by different African cultures. Here is a list of proverbs from Africa:
“A roaring lion kills nothing.”
Meaning: You won’t accomplish your goals by talking about them.
"A tree is known by its fruit."
Meaning: Success is shown by the deeds.
“Don’t call a dog with a whip in your hand.”
Meaning: People don’t listen to an aggressive leader.
"I have been bitten by a tsetse fly."
Meaning: A person will continuously be a pest until you pay off a debt.
“Only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet.”
Meaning: Consider the consequences before making a decision.
“The best way to eat an elephant is to cut him up into pieces.”
Meaning: Solve a problem by handling it a little at a time.
“The chameleon changes color to match the earth. The earth doesn’t change colors to match the chameleon.”
Meaning: If you want something to change, it should be you.
"The word of friend makes you cry - the word of an enemy makes you laugh."
Meaning: A friend will tell you the truth, which sometimes hurts, but an enemy will only lead you down the wrong path by giving you advice that seems good but is not.
Proverbs from China, Japan, India, Korea, and other Asian countries are known around the world for their clear and beautiful expressions of wisdom. Some examples of Asian proverbs include:
"A spark can start a fire that burns the entire prairie."
Meaning: A small problem can become a huge problem that can cause major damage.
“Complaining is the weak man’s weapon.”
Meaning: Strong people solve problems instead of complaining about them.
“Dig the well before you are thirsty.”
Meaning: Anticipate your needs before you need something.
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Meaning: Teaching people is better in the long run because it gives them the skills to provide for themselves as opposed to you doing things for them.
“He who answers is inferior to the one who asks the question.”
Meaning: It’s better to be curious than knowledgeable.
“If you plant grass, you won’t get rice.”
Meaning: Results match the work you put into them.
“It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.”
Meaning: Lived experience is more valuable than enjoying it secondhand.
“The fat buffalo will attract the lean buffalo.”
Meaning: Successful people lead by example.
"The old horse in the stable still yearns to run."
Meaning: Those who are older still have things they would like to accomplish.
Mexican proverbs are known as dichos or refrenes – “sayings” or “refrains.” Whether they are from Mexico, Central America, or South America, these proverbs are inspirational additions to any conversation.
“Both reputation and money are earned slowly and lost quickly.”
Meaning: It takes a long time to build your reputation and earn money, but not very long to lose either.
“I am in a hurry; therefore, I go slowly.”
Meaning: Working methodically is more productive than rushing.
“If you want to dance, pay the musician.”
Meaning: If you want something to happen, make it happen.
“It is better to be by yourself than poorly accompanied.”
Meaning: Being with the wrong people is worse than being alone.
“He who strikes first, strikes twice.”
Meaning: The person who acts first has the advantage.
“No one is a prophet in their own land.”
Meaning: People tend to value exotic and unfamiliar experiences rather than what they have in their own lives.
“Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”
Meaning: Appreciate what you have, even if it’s not very much.
“The fruit is known by the tree."
Meaning: A child’s reputation is determined by their family’s reputation.
“To leisurely youth, laborious old age.”
Meaning: If you waste your time when you’re young, you’ll work harder when you’re old.
Many Arabic proverbs have made their way into other languages because they are great pieces of advice. See how many of the following Arabic proverbs you’ve heard before.
“An army of sheep led by a lion would defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.”
Meaning: Leadership is the most important factor in success.
“Ask your purse what you can buy.”
Meaning: Don’t spend more money than you have.
“Excuses are worse than the original fault.”
Meaning: Making excuses for a mistake is worse than the mistake itself.
“If you build a pit for an enemy, you will fall into it.”
Meaning: Unkind actions will ultimately harm the person doing them.
“Secrets are like birds; when they leave your hand, they take flight.”
Meaning: You can’t control who knows a secret after you’ve told it to someone.
“The fruit of timidity is neither gain, nor loss.”
Meaning: If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, nothing will change.
“Time is money.”
Meaning: Wasting time is wasting a valuable resource.
“What is learned in youth is carved in stone.”
Meaning: Childhood experiences affect a person forever.
Jewish proverbs are the cornerstone of Judaism. The most famous list of Jewish proverbs is in the Old Testament of the Bible in the Book of Proverbs. Other Jewish proverbs include:
“Ask about your neighbors before buying the house.”
Meaning: Don’t surround yourself with negative people.
“If charity cost nothing, everyone would be a philanthropist.”
Meaning: Helping others requires self-sacrifice.
“If you’re too sweet, you’ll be eaten up; if you’re too bitter, you’ll be spat out.”
Meaning: Don’t let others take advantage of you, and don’t take advantage of others.
“God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers.”
Meaning: Mothers will protect their children, no matter what.
“Pride joined with many virtues chokes them all.”
Meaning: If you are prideful, it doesn’t matter how virtuous you are in other ways.
“The man who appreciates what he has is the richest man of all.”
Meaning: When you are satisfied with your life, you are as happy as a rich man.
“You must endure the bad if you want to live to see the good.”
Meaning: Living through hardships is part of life.
Russian proverbs reflect the tumultuous history of the country and its citizens. Here are some Russian proverbs that offer advice for life:
“A dog in the hay neither eats it nor lets others eat it.”
Meaning: Don’t protect what’s not worthwhile to you.
“A word is not a sparrow.”
Meaning: When you say something, it can’t be unsaid.
“Better to stumble than make a slip of the tongue.”
Meaning: Saying something wrong can be more painful than taking a bad step.
“Don’t bring your rules to another person’s monastery.”
Meaning: Respect other people’s cultures.
“Don’t teach a wise person.”
Meaning: Don’t give advice to people who are more experienced that you are.
“One can’t have two deaths.”
Meaning: Take risks in life because you only die once, and it probably won’t be today.
“Work is not a wolf that runs away to the forest.”
Meaning: You can finish your work anytime – it will still be here when you come back.
Proverbs play many roles in society. The first, possibly, most common role that a proverb plays is to educate. Most often tossed around as expert advice in conversation, the innate role is to educate people on what might happen if they do something. They also reinforce a community’s values and colloquial language. Proverbs can inspire someone in need of a kind word and help them make decisions for their lives.
Think of a proverb as a little tidbit of wisdom that just about everyone – no matter where they are from – can offer. There is a proverb for just about every circumstance, whether you hear it from a grandparent or a friend from another culture. But not all pithy sayings are considered proverbs. Read these examples to find the difference between proverbs, adages and aphorisms.