Missouri/Midwestern Proverbs

Proverbs are notoriously difficult to define. Most who have studied the matter agree on certain features – they’re pithy, memorable (and more importantly, remembered: there has to be a record of transmission over time and distance). They express an insight that’s true at least a good deal of the time (but of course may be opposed by another proverb – “he who hesitates is lost” is good advice. But so is “look before you leap”). They are frequently metaphorical, expressing a general principle through a concrete and specific instance; “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” or “you can’t judge a book by its cover” are not points of technical advice on gastronomy and codicology.

Proverbs are nobody’s property (or if they are, they’re better known as aphorisms). Our culture-heroes may get credit for some (Shakespeare, Mark Twain and the Bible have accumulated a lot of unearned reputational capital). But Ben Franklin did not originate “early to bed, early to rise,” and while we actually know who coined the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it’s doubtful that anyone repeating it thinks of ad-man Frederick R. Barnard. Rather, proverbs are “the wit of one, the wisdom of many.” One of the few points at which I disagree with the dean of paremiologists, Wolfgang Mieder, is in the title of one of his key works, “Proverbs Are Never Out of Season.”  They are golden in the right moment, galling in the wrong one, savory when dealt sparingly, tedious by the sackful (I have always thought this was the real reason Hamlet stabbed that old windbag Polonius).

It has long been suggested that we start a page on these. Below you’ll find a sample to prime the pump. I got these by, well, asking around, which is a time-honored type of fieldwork. These lack the ethnographic detail we’d like – who’s reporting it, where that person heard it (state and county) and year. Please include that information, if at all possible, as you email the editor proverbs you’ve heard and that you think might be more or less distinctive of our cultural catchbasin. We know actually that proverbs have little regard for boundaries; each of the items below has been verified for Arkansas and Texas as well as Missouri, and in fact there are few that we can confidently classify as exclusively American (“seeing is believing” looks like a possibility), let alone Missourian. So these are certainly not proverbs original to our area, but current here; we’re just tasting the cultural soup of the day…


·       You plant taters, you get taters.

·       Life is simpler if you plow around the stump.

·       Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.

·       When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.

·       Don’t sell the mule to buy a plow.

·       You can’t wallow with pigs and expect not to get dirty.

·       Don’t name a pig you figure on eating.

·       Even a dog knows the difference between being tripped-over and kicked.

·       Don’t put gas in a car you’ve already wrecked.

·       You can put a coat and tie on a goat, and it’s still a goat.

·       You can’t polish a turd.

·       Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig likes it.


Matthew Walker [matthewwalker1973 at sbcglobal.net] wrote in April, 2010:

I don't know if this fits your list - I found your list looking for more things like this - little mnemonic bits of natural.agrarian folklore -  "Frogs will look through ice, twice".  It is supposed to remind you that there will be two more frosts after you first hear frogs in the spring.


My boss at work said he always heard that when he was a kid - he was born and raised in Caldwell County Missouri. Born in the late 50s or early 60s.   I know his family had been on the same farm since his grandfather at least and probably a lot farther back, but I don't know where they might have come from before that - but generally speaking aside from the Mormons, most of the settlers here came from Kentucky and Tennessee. 



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