This word proverbial has been bothering me a lot lately. I cannot understand it even after translating it into my native language. I would like to know its meaning as well as its origin.

  • 3
    The meaning can be "pertaining to," "well known," "the nature of resembling," etc. Can you add an example of usage to your question? Aug 5, 2011 at 15:30
  • 4
    Which dictionaries you consulted and what was the problem with the definition there? ( this is the list of dictionaries that are finding the word in the adjective form - onelook.com/?w=proverbial&ls=a )
    – Unreason
    Aug 5, 2011 at 16:11
  • It depends on the context.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 21, 2020 at 2:03

3 Answers 3


T.E.D. has a fine answer, just wanted to say it my way. "Proverbial" means "having to do with a proverb", or as T.E.D. says "as heard in a proverb". There are many well-known proverbs in colloquial English. For example, there is one, "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones", meaning that people in a precarious moral position shouldn't point out the failings of others. English proverbs are generally allegorical, similar to a biblical parable (and some parables, such as the parable of the mustard seed, and other biblical stories like David and Goliath, have remained popular in English even as the culture trends toward the secular). Some are poetic, such as "beer before liquor, never been sicker" (meaning if you start out an evening drinking beer, then progress to hard liquor, you'll have a bad hangover in the morning), and contrary to the connotation of the word "proverb" as imparting ancient wisdom, proverbs are invented all the time ("loose lips sink ships" was coined in World War II, in the months leading up to the D-Day invasion; it was such a big operation with so much of the military and industry involved that the U.S. Government basically asked the entire country to keep whatever they knew or suspected about it secret).

So, a person who talks about "the proverbial man in a glass house" is referring to the proverb in my first example. Where the proverb is known, its imagery can be evoked without recounting it fully.

"Proverbial" can also be used as a synonym for "idiomatic", having a similar meaning but relating instead to idioms. Idioms are popular, somewhat metaphoric sayings regarding common situations; for example:

  • Up a creek without a paddle (in trouble with no way of helping yourself)
  • Out on a limb (at serious risk for injury to body, reputation, or pride)
  • Getting up on the wrong side of the bed (starting the day in a bad mood)
  • Getting cold feet (becoming nervous about something one is about to do)
  • The pot calling the kettle black (calling someone else out for a flaw you obviously possess yourself)

These sayings can also be referred to "proverbially", even though they're idioms; you may hear of being "up the proverbial creek", which is simply an alternate way of saying "up a creek without a paddle" as the original term has become slightly cliche.

  • 2
    No disagreement here, but one nit. There are two related cliche's there: "Up a creek without a paddle", and the more extreme "Up shit creek". In my book, "up the proverbial creek" is mostly way of saying the latter without using the "bad" word it contains.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 5, 2011 at 16:19
  • But doesn't any creek become "shit creek" if you're up there without a paddle? I always thought the coarser one was just a later variant breathing new life into the original. Aug 5, 2011 at 16:38
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers: I think being on any body of water (assumed "in a boat") without a paddle (meaning "without any means of navigational control") could potentially be very bad. Changing the water to feces just makes the situation much worse because it very likely eliminates any chances one might have of swimming to shore (I wouldn't want to try to swim through THAT, but water would still be worth a try if the situation warranted it). Aug 5, 2011 at 16:45
  • @Fumblefingers - I was of the belief that the creek you refer to is actually the sewage pipe of the commode. So that is actually a mixed metaphor as having a paddle there doesnt really do you any good anyway. /tangent -off
    – Chad
    Aug 5, 2011 at 19:58

Technically, it means "as heard in a proverb".

Sometimes this meaning is stretched a bit to mean something like "this kind of thing happens all the time". But generally, if you see something like "proverbial frog and scorpion", that means you should go looking for a proverb involving a frog and a scorpion to understand what they are getting at.

If you are new to English and friend says it to you in conversation, it may be a good idea to ask them to relate the proverb to you.

  • Hmm, but what if there are so many proverbs relating to that noun? E.g. what does "proverbial sleeves" mean?
    – Pacerier
    Jan 11, 2016 at 10:09

Proverbial Wisdom

What ‘proverbial’ refers to, as well as referring to actual ‘proverbs’, or bon mots, is ‘proverbial wisdom’.

Proverbial wisdom’ is ‘wisdom held as true, by the common man’ ie things you will commonly hear as true. To refer to this body of ‘wisdom’, which may or may not be completely true (or even, wisdom) but often includes a lot of common sense, you can say ‘proverbially...’

‘Proverbial’ can mean ‘in general usage’ or ‘generally known’ ‘generally believed’, or ‘is being talked about’.

As in:

  • ‘Well if the proverbial ‘pandemic’ explodes - then where will be? Implying that the speaker does not believe it is a ‘pandemic’ at all.

Often ‘proverbial’ used in this sense can mean ‘everyone is talking about it (such that it is becoming ‘a proverb’ or ‘generally held truth’ all by itself) - yet that the speaker doesn’t yet buy into it, or believe in it.

So, ‘proverbially’ often highlights and questions ‘the proverbial wisdom’ - ie ‘what the masses think’ or ‘what is commonly thought, or being talked about’.

As in:

  • ‘These proverbial ‘tax savings’ are nonsense! They’re just lining their own pockets!’ Meaning ‘they are not tax savings at all!’

Proverbially’ means something that has been ‘heard to be said’ - like a proverb is - ie, is ‘generally known wisdom’ or ‘generally perceived truth’.


Errol Flynn is proverbially said to have had 100,000 lovers meaning - we hear it as true but can’t verify.

Proverbially’ can also indicate ‘I am referring to a specific proverb here’ as in:

  • ‘I think we are grasping at the proverbial straw, in asking him to help’

Straw specifically refers to the idiom ‘clutching at straws’ ie ‘is hopeless, no use’

  • ‘You’re rushing too much. I think you’ve as much chance of winning like that, as the proverbial hare

Hare refers specifically to the Hare and Tortoise fable by Aesop where the rushing hare is easily overtaken by the proverbially steadfast and slow-moving hard-lidded animal

Having become an item of common mention, or reference:


  • Are you arguing, contrary to the other two answers here, that one can correctly use the word proverbial(ly), even when one has no actual proverb in mind?
    – jsw29
    Mar 21, 2020 at 21:10
  • Yes @jsw29 a typo, thanks. Or a freudian slip.
    – Jelila
    Mar 22, 2020 at 12:12
  • Yes! I am! As is seen in the link I provide and the quote from it ‘having become an item of common mention, or reference’. @jsw29
    – Jelila
    Mar 22, 2020 at 12:17

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