Vermont Humanities

Politics and Proverbs from Mud Season

Fast food worker with fried chicken on shelves

Here at the Portable Humanist, we’ve admired for some time the Mudseason podcast that’s produced by the Center for Research on Vermont. The episodes are created by students at the University of Vermont, or by recent graduates.

We’d like to share this Mud Season episode about politics and proverbs, which features Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and folklore at UVM. Wolfgang is the author of several books about proverbs, including one on Vermont proverbs in particular: Talk Less and Say More.

Episode Transcript

Wolfgang Mieder: Roosevelt, I mean, those were, at times, oratorial masterpieces. I would say that all the speeches that I’ve read lately are no rhetorical masterpieces. I always have thought it would be better for a president to uplift his or her audience rather than to think we are so incapable of understanding a well-argued paragraph.”

Here at the Portable Humanist, we’ve admired for some time the Mudseason podcast that’s produced by the Center for Research on Vermont. The episodes are created by students at the University of Vermont, or by recent graduates.

We especially like this one about proverbs, which was released in August of 2019. It features Wolfgang Mieder, a professor of German and folklore at UVM. Wolfgang is the author of several books about proverbs, including one on Vermont proverbs in particular: “Talk Less and Say More.”

Thanks to the Center for Research on Vermont for letting us share this Mudseason episode with you. Here’s host Eliza Giles.

Eliza Giles: Welcome to Mudseason, a podcast that cuts through the mud and brings you true stories from the Vermont laboratory. Today we’re joined by professor and scholar Wolfgang Meider.

Wolfgang Mieder: My name is Wolfgang Mieder. I’m a university distinguished professor of German and folklore at the University of Vermont and have been here since 1971.

Eliza Giles: Mieder is a scholar of peremiology, the study of proverbs.

Wolfgang Mieder: So proverbs are short, generalised observations of human behavior or natural phenomena that we repeat because they say things in a nutshell, so to speak.So sayings like “ignorance is bliss,” “a dog is a man’s best friend,” “practice makes perfect.” “The early bird catches the worm.” “Not everything that glitters is gold.” “Big fish eat little fish.” “One hand washes the other,” things along that line. But thousands of them really.

Eliza Giles: And although these are all English examples, proverbs aren’t at all unique to English.

Wolfgang Mieder: There are proverbs that are almost universally known throughout the world. It all depends whether certain proverbs have been loan translated into other languages. So we have basically a large stock of proverbs in the English language that actually go back to classical antiquity, Greek and Roman times. The next category would be religious proverbs from the Bible or from the Koran. Then you have the Latin Medieval set of proverbs that again reached many languages. And then, in addition to that, you have all the indigenous proverbs of the various cultures of the world you can think of. And those would be the ones that also would be the most difficult for a translator to deal with, because they don’t necessarily have equivalents or identical equivalents in other languages.

Eliza Giles: There are some regional proverbs like this as well. For example, Meider’s book of Vermont proverbs, Talk Less and Say More, includes the Vermont proverb, “Town meeting is time to put in the potatoes.” This refers to the Vermont town meeting day, March 3rd, as the optimal time to plant potatoes for Vermont’s plant hardiness zone, which is pretty specific. But potato planting aside, proverbs are pretty powerful linguistic tools, allowing us to communicate a lot in only a few words.

Wolfgang Mieder: And today it is the American English language that has the greatest international influence as far as spreading a whole new set of proverbs all around the world. For example, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ ‘if someone gives you a lemon, make lemonade,’ ‘go big or go home.’ Those are the proverbs—or ‘garbage in, garbage out’ from the computer world—those are the proverbs that are now spreading internationally, either in English or as translations due to the incredible power of the American mass media.

Eliza Giles: Which brings us to Meider’s most recent research: the use of proverbs by American politicians.

Wolfgang Mieder: So it takes the dryness out of political rhetoric. It adds emotion and expression and feeling. And if you want to communicate on a broader level, proverbs add a tremendous amount of color to, especially to, an oral speech. And since proverbs are also usually—not always, but usually— metaphors, the language becomes much more poetic and expressive. And you can, in a way., when you use a proverb, you add authority to what you’re saying. If you just use the proverbial expression, which would basically be a metaphor that is often used, you add color to what you’re saying and your audience can identify with it. So if you make a point, and you’ve just finished a paragraph explaining a certain thing, and you can line it up with a proverb that hits, so to speak, the proverbial nail on the head, then people will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I can understand that.’

Eliza Giles: Barack Obama frequently used proverbs in his speeches as president for this purpose.

Wolfgang Mieder: Barack Obama grew up in a way in the Baptist sermonic tradition. So he has the richness of the African American language, right, ready to go, even though he went to Harvard. He had his ear to the ground. He knows the lingo, so to speak. So when you read the speeches of President Obama, you can really kind of see that he models his speech on certain popular songs—”You can’t say it, but you know it’s true.” “I’m so in love with you.”

Wolfgang Mieder: Or other people whom he admired: Frederick Douglass, and then Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King.

Barack Obama: I’ve learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglass once taught: that freedom is not given, it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith. . . . I always believed what the first Republican president, a guy named Abraham Lincoln, said. He said we should do individually those things that we do best by ourselves, but to our government we should do together what we can’t do as well for ourselves. . . . As Dr. King said at the time, ‘It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.’ And I think that’s pretty important.

Wolfgang Mieder: And when I did my book on Obama, I could see how he actually uses proverbs and so on that these people used to bring more life, more linguistic expressiveness to his speeches.

Eliza Giles: And actually, Obama’s use of proverbs could be the result of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln.

Wolfgang Mieder: Lincoln, he had that colloquial touch to his highly important speeches. So he would add a proverb from time to time. I would say the most famous is his Cooper Union address, where he ends a very important speech of wanting to keep the union together by all means, by saying right makes might.

Actor as Abraham Lincoln: Let us have faith that right makes might. And in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

Eliza Giles: Obama also frequently quoted the Bible, sprinkling proverbs into his speeches from the religious category we mentioned earlier for greater effect.

Wolfgang Mieder: Obama very, very much liked the Golden Rule that I already mentioned. He often says, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

Barack Obama: But the success of our community will depend on your ability to follow the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would like to be treated. . . . But in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. In this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.

Wolfgang Mieder: But he also uses, you know, proverbs that you and I would use in everyday speech.

Barack Obama: And we knew there were some bad apples…we don’t have to worry about them. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Wolfgang Mieder: President Obama was especially rich, I think for a modern president, in his use of proverbs. But, I would never say that a president should overuse proverbial language. I think this is what happened a little bit to Bernie Sanders. If you use language like that too much, then before you know it, people will say, ‘Well, he always uses this statement or that statement.’ His two favorite proverbs, especially in the first campaign, were, ‘Enough is enough.’

Bernie Sanders: When is enough enough? . . . And I say enough is enough! . . . Enough is enough!

Wolfgang Mieder: And ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’

Bernie Sanders: The very, very rich are getting incredibly richer. The middle class is disappearing and the poor are getting poorer.

Wolfgang Mieder: But he used them so often that I think—certainly to someone like myself who was watching his language—it became a little bit overdone.

Eliza Giles: And on the other side of the spectrum, we have politicians like Donald Trump, whose speeches are almost completely devoid of proverbial language.

Wolfgang Mieder: President Trump is really, truly an interesting case when it comes to colloquial or proverbial language. He’s perfectly capable of using aggressive language. But he is not particularly metaphorical. And I can hardly find a proverbial expression or a proverb.

Wolfgang Mieder: And make “America Great Again,” like Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In,” is a slogan, not a proverb. A proverb has to contain a basic truth. Something that can be observed as a slogan is a little bit more limited. You cannot use a slogan in as many different situations with different functions, with different meanings. So a proverb has to be multi functional, multi expressive. So it cannot be as limited as saying, you know, well, ‘Let’s make America great again.’

Eliza Giles: And maybe there is some kind of linguistic trend in politics today. Take the first two 2020 Democratic debates, for example.

Wolfgang Mieder: If you print those speeches out, they come out as if they were written in two, maybe three-line paragraphs. So what that would show you from a rhetorical point of view or stylistic point of view is that basically we are bombarded with short pieces of claim or information or statements that are not developed.

Eliza Giles: And Dr. Meider has a theory as to why this is—perhaps in part due to a platform that has risen significantly as a political tool over the past four years.

Newscasters: President Trump spent much of his weekend putting his message out on Twitter: ‘A new poll finds just one in four Americans are comfortable with the president’s use of Twitter. The Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library here at South by Southwest. The exhibits are constantly hitting refresh because many of you, it turns out, are blocked by Trump on Twitter. But all that’s over, because this afternoon a federal judge ruled that Trump can’t block people on Twitter. So . . .

Wolfgang Mieder: Twitter forces all of us, whoever uses that medium, forces you to be very short. You don’t think your thoughts through, you don’t develop. What is behind, let’s say, a statement like ‘We’re gonna have that wall and Mexico is gonna build it.’ If we were to have to stand and say that, he would have to maybe utter an entire paragraph and give some explanation how he thinks he’s gonna do that. So that I think is, I’ve noticed with all of the speeches that I have read in the last few days, and I think that’s fair.

Wolfgang Mieder: Also, these things come from ‘I didn’t say that.’ It’s because you never developed what you were saying in the first place, in comparison to speeches that President Obama gave further back. FDR, Roosevelt, I mean, those were, at times, oratorial masterpieces. I would say that all the speeches that I’ve read lately are no rhetorical masterpieces. I always have thought it would be better for a president to uplift his or her audience rather than to think we are so incapable of understanding a well-argued paragraph.

Eliza Giles: But if we’re giving rankings, there are two candidates that stand out among the others for their use of proverbs and proverbial phrases.

Wolfgang Mieder: Elizabeth Warren, I think as far as her most recent speeches, I think she is pretty much on top. She and Joe Biden I think are about the most proverbial. She had things like ‘it stacks the deck for the wealthy,’ ‘just scratching the surface.’ ‘left the workers with the short end of the stick.’ So. Oh, yeah, and then she did use the proverb, ‘The rising tide lifts all boats.’

Eliza Giles: Which is actually a proverb associated with JFK, a figure who is favorably referenced by candidates throughout the debates.

JFK: There’s an old saying that ‘a rising tide lifts all the boats.’ And as the northwest United States rises, so does the entire country.

Eliza Giles: This phrase was later co-opted by conservative politicians in favor of tax cuts. Here’s Ronald Reagan in 1981:

Ronald Reagan: There’s a truth to the words spoken by John F. Kennedy that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ Yes, I know, it’s been said, what about the fellow without a boat who can’t swim? Well, I believe John Kennedy’s figure of speech was referring to the benefits which accrue to all when the economy is flourishing.”

Eliza Giles: So there’s some irony to Warren’s inverse use of the proverb.

Elizabeth Warren: Preach the gospel that free trade was a rising tide that would lift all boats. It’s great rhetoric, except that the trade deals that they negotiated mainly lifted the yachts.

Eliza Giles: But it just goes to show the complicated ways in which proverbs used in politics become associated with people and movements and gain new meaning as parties and platforms move in new directions. And maybe there is some sense that this kind of association under the right circumstances is valuable, like political currency.

Wolfgang Mieder: Joe Biden, when he gave one of his early speeches in this particular campaign, he made the statement—he started by saying “All men are.” And then he said, “and women are created equal.”

Joe Biden: Our campaign is about restoring that notion that all men and women are created equal.

Wolfgang Mieder: And there again, too, I had the feeling that Joe Biden thought, ‘Oh, boy, I got the gender issue in there. That was a perfect thing for me to do.’ What he probably wasn’t aware of—or maybe he was, I shouldn’t shortchange him—is that already Elizabeth Cady Stanton on July 19, 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, at the beginning of the modern American feminist movement, had said ‘all men and women are created equal.’ So it is as old as anything.”

Eliza Giles: And that’s really the crux of proverbs. They often pre-date the people they’re attributed to—evidence that the human experience hasn’t really changed all that much. And used correctly, they can unite or divide us.

Wolfgang Mieder: I think it is important that we analyze political speeches, period. A good politician will know how to choose her vocabulary to fit certain constituents. As a professor, you do the same thing. Who is my audience? What does my audience know or what does my audience expect? But the proverbs, if they are placed at the right moment without overdoing it—I want to stress that—it can close an argument. It can put authority behind it. It’s very difficult to argue against a proverb like ‘Man does not live by bread alone,’ for example.”

Eliza Giles: Thank you for listening to Mudseason, presented by the Center for Research on Vermont.

And thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist. Visit our website at portablehumanist dot org for a transcript of this episode, and for more information about Vermont Humanities.

Vermont Humanities*** May 20, 2020