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When proverbial phrases aren’t from proverbs

There are not enough proverbs in the world for everything that is proverbial.

On this week’s edition of That’s What They Say, host Rina Miller and University of Michigan Professor of English Anne Curzan examine the overuse of the word proverbial.

The term proverbial first appears in the English language in 1475. At this time, a proverbial saying is a proverb itself. However, by the late 16th century, proverbial is used to describe sayings that are well-known, or merely similar to proverbs.

Nowadays, this usage continues. Curzan looked in the Corpus of Contemporary American English to find some examples.

“The proverbial calm before the storm,” “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” “clean as the proverbial whistle” and “the proverbial icing on the cake,” are all ways proverbial is used today. In these examples, proverbial refers to connections with idioms, not proverbs.  

Why are we using proverbial as a synonym for idiomatic? “As a speaker or a writer, it shows that you are self-aware,” Curzan reasons. “You are aware that you are using something that is perhaps a cliché, but you’re going to use it anyway.”

Perhaps proverbial is confused with idiomatic because there is a fine line between idioms and proverbs. Proverbs are short expressions of sentiments we take to be truths or lessons, whereas idioms are fixed expressions that do not need to include wisdom.  

What do you think? Is the term proverbial chopped liver? Let us know by writing on our Facebook wall or commenting on our website.

-Clare Toeniskoetter, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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