Proverbs are popularly defined as short expressions of popular wisdom. Efforts to improve on the popular definition have not led to a more precise definition. The wisdom is in the form of a general observation about the world or a bit of advice, sometimes more nearly an attitude toward a situation.
Generally accepted proverbs tend to be old. Many of those current in modern languages appear to be direct translations of proverbs that are two thousand years old. But proverbial expressions seem to arise quite quickly on occasion.
Although Wiktionary's criteria for inclusion has no substantive discussion of proverbs, there has been remarkably little difficulty in including the proverbs now included and in differentiating them from items that appear in other parts of speech. Nevertheless, such difficulties might arise.
Proverbs commonly have a number of attributes that may make it easier to resolve questions about their inclusion.
- Age. Usually proverbs are centuries old, though precise wording may have changed, even involving appearance in multiple old languages.
- Brevity. Proverbs can be as short as two words (time flies). In addition, the full forms of popular longer proverbs are often replaced by elliptical allusions.
- Poetry. Proverbs use prosodic devices that enhance their memorability, especially rhyme, alliteration, parallelism, as ellipsis.
- Rhetorical devices. Proverbs often use simple rhetorical devices, metaphor, hyperbole, paradox, and personification.
- Structure. Proverbs often form clusters that share a common structure. (eg, one X doesn't make a Y, No X without Y)
Exceptions can be found for each of these, but, taken together, they provide support for an expression being a proverb.
Other common attributes offer less satisfactory differentiating criteria:
- Anonymous coinage. Some sayings with well-known coinage become popular (eg, US President Theodore Roosevelt's speak softly but carry a big stick)
Inclusion of an expression in more than one compendium of proverbs may provide a useful shortcut to determining whether it is a proverb.