I'm not even sure of what we commonly label these types of expressions that are passed down from generations.

Some are attributed to the bible, like, "idle hands are the devil's workshop." There are others like, "don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

I like to quiz family members on these expressions at get-togethers, but the younger generation tells me they are relics from the dinosaur age and an unfair test of cultural aptitude.

Are they mostly obsolete in this generation's culture (media, literature, etc)? And is there some set of commonly used expressions that are current and have been compiled somewhere?

Edit: to clarify, I am looking for a source of modern equivalents of historical proverbs. Now that I'm more aware of the best terminology, the question (hopefully) is more appropriate.

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, choster, Edwin Ashworth, Chenmunka, ScotM Jul 6 '15 at 0:00

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    They are called idioms. Some are centuries old and haven't lost their relevancy. Because many harken back to agrarian times (some from the Greeks), it is true that the young must be taught some of the idioms, but most eventually pick it them up by exposure to their culture. My kids know their idioms. There is a lot on the internet about idioms - just search "English idioms" (British/etc.) – anongoodnurse Jun 30 '15 at 3:06
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    They are indeed proverbial. And to "piggyback" on medica's comment, the collective unconscious of the younger generation is inventing their own idioms, or “fixed phrases,” as every generation does. Idioms are a kind of cultural shorthand, linguistic distillates of common and enduring human experience. Most of the “new” idioms will be recapitulations of their predecessors, containing the same old kernels of wisdom in a contemporary setting, they will be, as it were, but “new wine in old bottles.” – user98990 Jun 30 '15 at 3:30
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    @dwjohnston this OP won't remain open without a specific English language question, like: what are expressions like "That's the way the cookie crumbles" or "idle hands ..." called? Can you assist with another edit? – user98990 Jun 30 '15 at 3:36
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    @stevesliva. That's a very cool trending comparison tool. Only, i would first need a list of modern expressions to compare. – pat Jun 30 '15 at 4:22
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a request for resources – FumbleFingers Jun 30 '15 at 11:49

There are any number of ways to characterize succinct expressions of commonsense wisdom—including such terms as proverbs, sayings, adages, aphorisms, apothegms, saws, and homilies—and they are constantly being supplemented by new expressions that have caught on and achieved some degree of cultural resonance.

Evidence of the ever-emerging nature of such sayings appears in The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012), which consists of discussions of "more than 1400" (but presumably less than 1500) proverbs that have emerged since 1900—fragments of relatively new folk wisdom like "The sky is the limit" (1909) and "It's a jungle out there" (1951) and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (1960) and "The game isn't over till the fat lady sings" (1984) and "Even a dead cat will bounce" (1987) and "He who dies with the most toys still dies" (1993) and "If you aren't lying, you aren't trying" (2004).

Conversely, popular sayings of the past often fall into disuse and become unknown to succeeding generations. Thus the following proverbs—among many others—reported by Nathan Bailey in his Dictionarium Britannicum (1736) are new to me: "Soldiers in peace are like chimnies in summer." "Every man's nose will not make a shoeing-horn." "The clerk forgets that ever he was a sexton." "Drunken folks seldom take harm." "A bushel of March dust is worth a king's ransom." "Light suppers make clean sheets." "An inch breaks no squares."

The point is not that we are poorer than our forebears in such wisdom (although I don't doubt that I would be wiser if I understood why it makes sense to say "An inch breaks no squares"), and that our progeny will be poorer than us, but that proverbs are a kind of river of commonsense wisdom that replenishes itself as it rushes along.

  • "An inch breaks no squares." You haven't got the sense of it? – user98990 Jun 30 '15 at 6:23
  • @LittleEva: Nathan Bailey interprets it thus: "That is, it is hardly worth while to break off a bargain or contest an argument or dispute with a neighbour or friend for a trifle." So I understand the intention of it, but not what sort of square the proverb is talking about, nor why an inch might have been feared (unreasonably) to break it. – Sven Yargs Jun 30 '15 at 6:29
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    Here is John Heywood, Proverbes (1562) on "Breaking the Square": "An inch breaketh no square : which, since thou hast heard tell,/Thou dost assys how to break square by an ell." And again (same source): "An inch breaketh no square : thou breakest none, though it do;/Thou rather bringest square than breakest square between two." Both of these couplets consist of the original saying plus Heywood's poetical play on it; in the first instance he seems to connect it to the conflicting proverb "Give someone an inch and they will take an ell." Anyway, it's an old, old saying. – Sven Yargs Jun 30 '15 at 6:44
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    Never give a square an even break. – Sven Yargs Jun 30 '15 at 7:00
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    @stevesliva: You know, I finally figured out while blundering around in the books of proverbs mentioned above that the saying probably originated in architecture: "An inch [out of true] doesn't break a square." In other words, even if a building when constructed is only approximately square, its being an inch off doesn't matter: A 1-inch error doesn't mean that the square isn't still square. It was the singular inch and the plural squares in Bailey's version that had me chasing my own tail. – Sven Yargs Jul 1 '15 at 6:30

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