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Coffee cup spoofing serious proverb.
Coffee cup spoofing serious proverb.
Graphic spoof on "Big fish eat little fish", from Spanish context
Graphic spoof on "Big fish eat little fish", from Spanish context

An anti-proverb or a perverb is the transformation of a standard proverb for humorous effect.[1] Paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder defines them as "parodied, twisted, or fractured proverbs that reveal humorous or satirical speech play with traditional proverbial wisdom".[2] Anti-proverbs are ancient, Aristophanes having used one in his play Peace, substituting κώẟων "bell" (in the unique compound "bellfinch") for κύων "bitch, female dog", twisting the standard and familiar "The hasty bitch gives birth to blind" to "The hasty bellfinch gives birth to blind".[3]

Anti-proverbs have also been defined as "an allusive distortion, parody, misapplication, or unexpected contextualization of a recognized proverb, usually for comic or satiric effect".[4] To have full effect, an anti-proverb must be based on a known proverb. For example, "If at first you don't succeed, quit" is only funny if the hearer knows the standard proverb "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again". Anti-proverbs are used commonly in advertising, such as "Put your burger where your mouth is" from Red Robin.[5] Anti-proverbs are also common on T-shirts, such as "Taste makes waist" and "If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you".

T-shirts are common sites for anti-proverbs
T-shirts are common sites for anti-proverbs

Standard proverbs are essentially defined phrases, well known to many people, as e. g. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. When this sequence is deliberately slightly changed ("Don't bite the hand that looks dirty") it becomes an anti-proverb. The relationship between anti-proverbs and proverbs, and a study of how much a proverb can be changed before the resulting anti-proverb is no longer seen as proverbial, are still open topics for research.[6]


There have been various attempts at classifying different types of anti-proverbs, based on structure and semantics, including by Mieder, Litovkina,[7] and Valdeva.[8] What follows is somewhat synthetic of these.

Classification on formal criteria

Classification on content criteria

Types of humorous effects

Placemat with proverb twisted by negation
Placemat with proverb twisted by negation


Anti-proverbs have been used and recognized for a long time. The Greek musician Stratonicus of Athens used an anti-proverb to mock a cithara-singer who had been nicknamed "Ox". He twisted the standard Greek proverb "The ass hears the lyre", replacing the first word to produce "The Ox hears the lyre."[10]

However, the term "anti-proverb" was not coined until 1982 by Wolfgang Mieder.[4] The term became more established with the publication of Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna T. Litovkina,[11]

An anti-proverb, formed by adding an unexpected cynical phrase to the end, with an apropos cartoon
An anti-proverb, formed by adding an unexpected cynical phrase to the end, with an apropos cartoon

They were one of the many experimental styles explored by the French literary movement Oulipo. The term perverb is attributed to Maxine Groffsky.[12][13] The concept was popularised by Oulipo collaborator Harry Mathews in his Selected Declarations of Dependence (1977).[13]

Anti-proverbs have been alternatively named "postproverbials" by Aderemi Raji-Oyelad, (also known by his pen name, Remi Raji).[14] This term has been adopted by some African proverb scholars, seen in a large collection of articles about antiproverbs/postproverbials in the journal Matatu 51,2 , edited by Aderemi Raji-Oyelade and Olayinka Oyeleye.[15]

Anti-proverbs in literature

Some authors have bent and twisted proverbs, creating anti-proverbs, for a variety of literary effects. For example, in the Harry Potter novels, J. K. Rowling reshapes a standard English proverb into "It's no good crying over spilt potion" and Professor Dumbledore advises Harry not to "count [his] owls before they are delivered".[16]

From Nigeria, Adeyemi shows the use of both proverbs and anti-proverbs in Rérẹ́ Rún by Okediji. [17] Adeyemi believes that they add humor, color and beauty to his writing. But on a political plane, he believes "Anti-proverbs were also used to stimulate critical consciousness in the readers to fight for their rights but with wisdom. The conclusion of the paper was that the conscious manipulation of the so-called fixed proverbs could generate new proverbs, encourage creativity in the writers and expose hidden meanings of proverbs."[18]

In a slightly different use of reshaping proverbs, in the Aubrey–Maturin series of historical naval novels by Patrick O'Brian, Capt. Jack Aubrey humorously mangles and mis-splices proverbs, such as "Never count the bear's skin before it is hatched" and "There's a good deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot."[19] An earlier fictional splicer of proverb is a character found in a novel by Beatrice Grimshaw, producing such combinations as "Make hay while the iron is hot" (very similar to an example from Capt. Aubrey) and "They lock the stable door when the milk is spilt".[20]

Part of G. K. Chesterton’s reputation as the “Prince of Paradoxes” rested on his ability to turn proverbs and clichés on their heads. One example of this facility occurs in his What’s Wrong with the World: Arguing that the education of children is better left to their mothers than to professional educators, he ends his argument with, “... [I]f a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”[21] Commenting on this, Dale Ahlquist in the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton blog, argues that there is considerable good sense in this paradoxical anti-proverb. He cites Chesterton’s own remark that “Paradox has been defined as ‘Truth standing on her head to get attention’”, and notes that Chesterton in the same passage explicitly concedes that there are things, like astronomy, that need to be done very well; whereas when it comes to writing love letters or blowing one’s nose, Chesterton argues that, “These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”[22]


Splicing two proverbs

In a slightly different pattern of reshaping proverbs humorously, pieces of multiple proverbs can be spliced together, e.g. "Never count the bear's skin before it is hatched" and "There's a good deal to be said for making hay while the iron is hot."[19]

Garden path proverb

The term has also been used to describe a garden path sentence based on a proverb; namely, a sentence that starts out like the proverb, but ends in such a way that the listener is forced to back up and re-parse several words in order to get its real sense:

Proverbs beginning with Time flies like ... are popular examples in linguistics, e.g. to illustrate concepts related to syntax parsing. These examples are presumably inspired by the quip "Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like a banana", attributed to Groucho Marx.[23]

To be effective in written form, a garden-path proverb must have the same spelling and punctuation as the original proverb, up to the point where the reader is supposed to back up, as in the "time flies" example above. These spelling or punctuation constraints may be relaxed in perverbs that are spoken, rather than written:

Proverb with surprising or silly ending

Proverb with twisted ending
Proverb with twisted ending

The term is also used in the weaker sense of any proverb that was modified to have an unexpected, dumb, amusing, or nonsensical ending—even if the changed version is no harder to parse than the original:

The perverb "A rolling stone gathers momentum" (based on the saying by Publilius Syrus) is moderately popular in technology-minded circles, having been featured in several bumper stickers and T-shirts.

Pun on a proverb

The word has also been used for puns on proverbs:[13]

See also


  1. ^ Tuzcu, Öznur. 2018. Anti-Proverb as a Type of Intertextual Joke. Humanitas - International Journal of Social Sciences 12:34-48.
  2. ^ p. 28, Mieder, Wolfgang. 2004. Proverbs: A Handbook. (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks). Greenwood Press.
  3. ^ p. 4. Alster, Bendt. 1979. An Akkadian and a Greek proverb. A comparative study. Die Welt des Orients 10. 1-5.
  4. ^ a b p. xi, Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, & Fred Shapiro. The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  5. ^ Wolfgang Mieder and Barbara Mieder, 1977, Journal of Popular Culture, 11:308–319.
  6. ^ p. 166. Barta, Péter. 2009. Proverbial and Anti-Proverbial Variants of "on ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre." McKenna, K. J. ed., The proverbial "Pied piper": a festschrift volume of essays in honor of Wolfgang Mieder on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, 155–167. New York: Peter Lang.
  7. ^ pp. 17–26, Litovkina, Anna Tóthné and Wolfgang Mieder. 2006. Old proverbs never die, they just diversify: a collection of anti-proverbs. Burlington: University of Vermont and Veszprém, Hungary: Pannonian University of Veszprém.
  8. ^ Valdeva, Tatiana. 2003. Anti-proverbs or new proverbs: The use of English anti-proverbs and their stylistic analysis. Proverbium 20:379–390.
  9. ^ "German Sayings: Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei - Greenhorn Germany". Greenhorn Germany. 2015-08-04. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  10. ^ p. 386, fn. 665. Fortenbaugh, William. 2005. Theophrastus of Eresus Commentary Volume 8: Sources on Rhetoric and Poetics. Brill.
  11. ^ Supplement volume to Proverbium. University of Vermont.
  12. ^ Hunnewell, Susannah (2007). "Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction No. 191". Vol. Spring 2007, no. 180. The Paris Review. ((cite magazine)): Cite magazine requires |magazine= (help)
  13. ^ a b c Quinion, Michael. "Perverb". World Wide Words. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  14. ^ Raji, Remi. "Postproverbials in Yoruba Culture: A Playful Blasphemy." Research in African Literatures 30, no. 1 (1999): 74-82.
  15. ^ Matatu 2020, vol.21.2 Table of Contents on postproverbials
  16. ^ Heather A. Haas. 2011. The Wisdom of Wizards—and Muggles and Squibs: Proverb Use in the World of Harry Potter. Journal of American Folklore 124(492): 38.
  17. ^ Lere Adeyemi. 2012. Proverbs and Anti-proverbs in Ọladẹjọ Okediji's Rérẹ́ Rún: A Marxist Perspective. Paremia 21: 2012, pp. 207–218. Web version of the article Archived 2020-07-09 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ p. 207. Lere Adeyemi. 2012. Proverbs and Anti-proverbs in Ọladẹjọ Okediji's Rérẹ́ Rún: A Marxist Perspective. Paremia 21: 2012, pp. 207–218. Web version of the article Archived 2020-07-09 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ a b Jan Harold Brunvand. 2004. "The Early Bird Is Worth Two in the Bush": Captain Jack Aubrey's Fractured Proverbs. What Goes Around Comes Around: The Circulation of Proverbs in Contemporary Life, Kimberly J. Lau, Peter Tokofsky, Stephen D. Winick, (eds.), pp. 152–170. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.
  20. ^ Unseth, Peter. 2020. Beatrice Grimshaw's proverb splicer and her artful usage of proverbs. Proverbium 37:341-358.
  21. ^ G. K. Chesterton. 2014. “Folly and Female Education.” In The G. K. Chesterton Collection: 50 Books. Kindle ed., loc. 7506. London, England, UK: Catholic Way Publishing.
  22. ^ Dale Ahlquist. April 29, 2012. “A Thing Worth Doing.” The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. [1].
  23. ^ Groucho Marx quotes Archived 2013-01-18 at the Wayback Machine at Accessed on 2009-08-14.
  24. ^ Quinion, Michael (22 June 2002). "Butter no parsnips". World Wide Words. Retrieved January 17, 2012.

Further reading