I recently read a long list of English proverbs and strongly felt that a considerable number of them have a double meaning, despite that the explanations of the proverbs provide only one meaning for each proverb.

I am curious as to whether native English speakers see double meanings of English proverbs as I do and, if not, whether my perception is due to insufficient understanding of usage and flavors of English words or due to my ways of thinking shaped by the culture of my country.

Let me show you a few specific examples of how I see double meanings in English proverbs.

  • Proverb 1: The labourer is worthy of his wages.

    • Standard interpretation: Workers should or deserve to be paid for their time and effort.

    • Alternative interpretation: The worthiness of a labourer can be judged by how much he is paid. If he were more valuable than that, he would be able to better sell his time and effort on the job market.

  • Proverb 2: The Devil take the hindmost.

    • Standard interpretation: Each person must work independently toward their own success, as in competitive situations.

    • Alternative interpretation: It is not good for the society to help those who lag behind, for they are unworthy. So may the Devil take them.

  • Proverb 3: Only fools and horses work.

    • Standard interpretation: One should find an easy way to make money, like an invention or a creative business idea, instead of resorting to hard graft.

    • Alternative interpretation: Smart people are able to exploit others.

  • Proverb 4: Cheaters never win and winners never cheat.

    • Standard interpretation: Cheaters will ultimately pay a price for their deception and will not prosper in the long run.

    • Alternative interpretation: If someone was caught cheating, he did not win, and if someone won, he was not caught cheating.

My question is this: Are my alternative interpretations permitted by the English language? In other words, is it possible for native speakers to interpret these proverbs as I did, or are there some factors that exclude my alternative interpretations?

  • 2
    It is impossible to generalize. There may be more than two even. Interpretation of proverbs is tricky business but please, do not question your "thinking patterns". It sounds as if you are putting yourself down. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 16:56
  • 1
    @Lambie : Oh, I did not know that it sounds in this way :) I will now remove "thinking patterns." I only meant to say that I come from a different culture :)
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 16:58
  • I suspected that. It must be a Japanese thing that doesn't work quite right in English as it sounds sort of like psychology or neurology. No worries. [whether my interpretations work in English]
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 17:03
  • 1
    @Mitsuko Individual words can have multiple meanings. It's far from unlikely that proverbs have different meanings to different people. Most people don't check proverbs in a dictionary to see a single meaning that they equate to. Instead, they pick them up organically in the context of regular conversation. Conversation, while a shared activity, never means exactly the same thing from one person to the next. So I have no doubt different people do interpret these proverbs differently. Even if, for the most part, a common meaning is assumed. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 20:01
  • 3
    @Mitsuko For what it's worth, for example, I've always taken the Devil take the hindmost in your alternative interpretation more than the first. (Although my interpretation isn't quite the same as either of yours.) Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 20:02

1 Answer 1


Proverbs are made to be interpreted in a standardized manner for native speakers and as a "shorthand" for a far more complex concept. The same happens with idioms and aforisms in general.

Usage of a proverb with a different meaning than the standard interpretation is a surefire way to miscommunication, especially when you're talking to a native - they have the standard meaning ingrained in them. And mind that proverbs, idioms and aforisms do not translate well as they're highly dependant on cultural context.

For example, as your alternative interpretation to #4, I'd say "Rule 1 in Scrabble", meaning "it is not cheating if you don't get caught" because one of the most famous rules in Scrabble is that if you play something that is not a valid word and nobody calls you on it, the word sticks and you get the points. Most US-based English speakers will understand my phrase in the way I intend it, but most non-natives (or those who don't have the cultural context to pick it up) will be confused.

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