“The comparative paremiology (study of proverbs) shows that the nations of the world have much in common, despite the frontiers and distances which divide them, and that they are like one great family notwithstanding the various conditions of their development, or the different forms of their political and economic systems. The comparative study of world proverbs may also be considered, In some measure, as a contributive factor to a better mutual understanding and rapprochement between nations.”  


Author of “PROVERBS, A Comparative Book of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian

Proverbs with a Latin Appendix,” 1971


The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs. 

Francis Bacon, Essays, 1597




We Turks enjoy a rich heritage of culture and wisdom, which we would like to share with the rest of the world.

This present collection of proverbs is indicative of traditional Turkish wis­dom. It contains some 5,000 texts both in current use and old, recorded at various times in Turkey and in other Turkic lands. The English translations of the proverbs are always accompanied by their Turkish originals as well as their explanations where literal rendering fails to convey the intended meaning. 

The proverbs are classified topically into 172 categories, and their equiva­lents are supplied where conceptual resemblances are found with proverbs of other cultures, especially with those in the English-speaking world. Each proverb is marked with a reference as to its source in a prominent proverb collection or in a literary masterpiece. In order to add a touch of regional humor to the book, a professional artist has contributed illustrations of dif­ferent aspects of Turkish lifestyle. 

The author is happy that you, the reader, have taken an interest in these pearls of wisdom accumulated throughout the ages in these parts of the world, and hopes that this collection will add a new dash of spice to your life as well as to the lives of readers worldwide. 


Ankara, 1993



 Steven E. Hegaard

Former Fulbright scholar to Turkey and current consultant on western relations with the new Central Asian Turkic republics.   

It’s an early Sunday evening of a warm day late in the spring. You are a tourist resting on a bench in the shade of a grove of trees facing a grassy picnic area in a city park somewhere in Turkey. There, where children play and mothers are now preparing tea on a picnic butane-gas stove, you can see a middle-aged man strolling along the nearby concrete walk. As he turns and approaches your bench you can see that he’s dressed in his in­formal “Sunday best” —a light sport Jacket with open-necked shirt, slacks supported by a belt with a Gucci buckle, and tan Timberland loafers. He seems to be both observer and protective overseer of the children, wives and daughters of the various Turkish families and relatives so friendly gathered.

This is a familiar scene in almost any city park in Turkey from Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, to Trabzon, Kars and Adana. And who knows? The park may have existed since Ottoman times; in a few Turkish cities some of the çınar, or plane trees, seem to be just as ancient, and in the southern part of Turkey beginning from Izmir, palm trees with trunks as wide as barrels grace the otherwise very modern looking city parks.

As our middle-class Turkish gentleman strolls, you see an expression on his face that appears somehow reminiscent of an Ottoman gentleman: per­haps a bit bemused, but at the same time authoritative and attentive. He now turns away from you back towards his charges in the grassy picnic area, and as he does so you notice for the first time his hands clasped to­gether behind him. You are not distracted by the expensive gold band of the Seiko watch on his left wrist —what draws your attention and begins to fas­cinate you is that his clasped hands are holding a key chain.

There seems to be a sort of medallion fastened by its own short, separate links to one part of the chain. Your eye is caught briefly by a metallic flash from the medallion; it is easily recognized as the trade-mark emblem of a popular European car now manufactured under license in Turkey. The gen­tleman, hands still behind his back, slowly and deliberately passes the car keys one-by-one through his fingers.

Tradition dies hard, and the traditions of culture, religion and language are carried by a people for generations. The car keys clasped and so careful­ly manipulated in the fingers of today’s middle class Turkish gentleman are in the tradition of the tesbih (Moslem prayer beads akin to the Christian Catholic’s rosary beads) of his father and Ottoman Turkish grandfather be­fore him.

Yet traditions do appear to be dying amid the hustle and bustle of to­day’s modern societies, and in developing countries like Turkey they have also begun to wane and fade away. But as these societies change, some of the old habits and traditions continue to assert themselves, albeit in perhaps somewhat altered forms. In the park where we are sitting now, for ex­ample, there used to be a grizzled old man hunched over an ancient white upright scale of the sort that you’d find in a doctor’s office. He’d tell you your weight, and quite accurately, too, for the equivalent of only a few pen­nies. Today, the old man (or is it perhaps his son?) is still there, but his old upright scale with the weights that he would so professionally manipulate along their tracks has now been replaced by a very cold looking electronic model with a digital readout. And next to the electronic scale, the old man’s son (or grandson?) stands ready to offer you a reading of your blood pres­sure as well.

In today’s Turkey, where the English word “stress” has entered the lan­guage and hotels which once boasted of their “Turkish hospitality” now her­ald their four- and five-star status, it is important to find and understand the traces of cultural heritage that still truly do exist (although not so readi­ly apparent as once before).

Turkish proverbs can help us in this respect to discover the real Turkish cultural history underlying the modern veneer.

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The author of this book, A Dictionary of Turkish Proverbs, Metin Yurtbaşı, announces in his subtitle to the work that it contains “more than 5,000 Turkish proverbs with their translations, explanations and equivalents in English.” But, putting language aside, what exactly is a proverb? Admittedly it would be wrong to try to define a relatively abstract literary concept In a few single specific, concrete scholarly terms. Nevertheless, before we strug­gle with our own broad definition, let’s take a brief look at what a few others have written.

Following Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, we find that a proverb may be considered “a brief popular epigram or maxim.” As “synonymous cross-references” (not synonyms) Webster further suggests “adage” and “by­word”; as definition for the Biblical book of Judaic Scripture, Proverbs, we read ‘... moral sayings and counsels...”

In turn, an “epigram” is “a concise poem dealing pointedly and often sa­tirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought,” or “a terse, sage or witty and often paradoxical saying”; “maxim” is “a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct”; “ad­age” is defined as “a saying often in metaphorical form that embodies a common observation~” and “byword” as “a frequently used word or phrase.” Of course in its definitions of these words Webster also refers back to the word “proverb,” and the phrase, “proverbial saying.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the thorough and highly scholarly Ox­ford English Dictionary’s definition of “proverb” is “a short pithy saying in common and recognized use; a concise sentence, often metaphorical or al­literative in form, which is held to express some truth ascertained by experi­ence or observation, and familiar to all.” A thoughtful mid- 17th century definition came from John Ray in the Preface to his book, English Proverbs, an instructive sentence, or common and pithy saying, in which more is gen­erally designed [i.e. implied] than expressed.”

E. Kemal Eyuboglu, a Turkish scholar, also speaks of “old saws or say­ings” (say), “parables” (mesel), “apocryphal tales and fables” (kissa), “aphor­isms” (hikmet) (=Webster’s “concise statement of a principle” or “terse for­mulation of a truth or sentiment”), “epigrams” (vecize), “fine, elegant or salient points” (berceste), “abstract expressions, interpretations” (tabir), “re­finements, subtleties of language; epigrams; witty remarks” (nükte).

Now, from all of the above, let’s try to formulate our own definition of what a “proverb” is. In doing so (and cheating a bit with some foreknowl­edge), we’ll keep in mind the special characteristics of the Turkish proverb.

First of all, we can say that proverbs usually are short, succinct “terse truths,” “salient points.” Very often they are statements of principles; they give advice. Such a counsel sometimes may be set forth as a~ observation in a somewhat passive form, but more often the advice is direct. “Marry first and love will follow” is an English proverb containing direct advice; “Love comes after marriage” is its Icelandic equivalent worded more indirectly. Es­pecially In the case of proverbs giving direct advice, such advice is often stated literally, but here, both of the examples just above, both direct and indirect, are literal statements. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is another example of a proverb with a strictly literal interpretation.

Proverbs may also be in the form of more abstract expressions, or meta­phors, whether advising directly or indirectly; “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched (direct)”: “Every cloud has its silver lining (indi­rect).” Sometimes metaphorical expressions, particularly those stated di­rectly, appear to be literal (“Don’t count your chickens...’), and in the case of some proverbs occasional interpretation may be necessary. In Turkish, for example, the indirect advice that ‘He who sows before plowing his field three times will reap unripe crops” is taken by farmers quite literally, but the underlying meaning may well be “Make thorough preparations even though they require time, so that all of your final effort and expenditure yields~ a positive result.” In fact, as is also true in other languages, Turkish proverbs are rich in metaphor and often require explanatory interpretation.

On account of so many proverbs containing philosophical and metaphor­ical meanings, the proverbs in this book have been arranged, not in a sim­ple alphabetical sequence, but into more than 170 groups that reflect their more abstract meanings. Abstract and concrete subject categories range from “Absence” to “Writing.” Where concrete concepts or objects are headwords, it is nearly always the abstract quality connected with that concept or object that is the true subject of the proverb. Examples of these; Agricul­ture, Child, Commerce, Devil, Dress, Drink, Eating (all three of the latter re­ferring to the behavior connected with each of them), Guest, Home, Neigh­bor, News, Parent, Servant, Small Things, Talk, Travel, Weather, Woman, World and Writing.3

Besides imparting advice --either direct advice concerning the mechan­ics of day-to-day living, or advice on the more philosophical aspects of life and its many great enigmas-- proverbs may also provide rationalizations or even simply excuses to justify one’s other than exemplary behavior. The English proverb, “Better belly burst than good food wasted/good drink lost” is one example of this. In a similar vein, we may contrast the English “Eat at pleasure, drink by measure” with the Russian “Eat until you are half sat­isfied, and drink until you are half drunk.” A good example of a proverbial rationalization in Turkish is found in this collection under the section “Crime”; “The wealth of the state is an ocean; anyone who doesn’t grab it is (as stupid as) a pig.” [The state’s wealth is boundless; only a fool would not steal his share.1

Perhaps reflecting this contrasting aspect of proverbs —advice or admo­nition versus the idea of rationalization or justification for nonexemplary ac­tion— are the summary comments of Rosalind Fergusson to the Preface of her own collection of the world’s best known proverbs:

Proverbs have to be short, they have to be memorable, and they must not be mere platitudes. But they do not have to be true! Folk wisdom is often contradictory. “A fair face cannot have a crabbed heart” and “Fair face, cruel heart” cannot both be true. If “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” In what circumstances do “Many hands make light work?”4

Indeed, at the beginning of this century George Santayana commented succinctly: “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance It.”

And a brief pause here to define quickly, at least for the purposes of this book, what a proverb is not:

a)   Any idiomatic phrase, such as “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” with the translated Turkish counterpart of “spitting either up into one’s moustache or down into one’s beard.”

b)   Any proverbial expression~ such as “kill two birds with one ~tone” and its direct Turkish counterpart, where the metaphor is obvious.

c)   Any proverbial expression derived from fables, anecdotes, fairy tales, etc. such as “Yes, but what If it does indeed happen anyway, despite all’? (“Ya tutarsa?” from one of the many popular Nasraddin Hodja stories dating back centuries in Turkic language folklore.)

d)   Any advice, admonition, exhortation or statements from popular lit­erature, public speeches, advertisements that is employed or cited con­sciously for Its effect, such as John F. Kennedy’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; and similar­ly In Turkish, Kemal Atatürk’s “How fortunate is the one who is able to say “I am a Turk.” Some recent advertising slogans may be seen as definite at­tempts to “proverbialize.” For example, “Bir yudum bin coşkun” (“One swal­low, a thousand delights”) from a well-known Turkish soft-drink manufacturer.

In addition to setting forth advice, admonition or providing rationaliza­tion, proverbs occasionally make general observations or state fairly simple or general truths. Often these may also be seen as forms of indirect or even direct advice. The American “Fractures well cured make us more strong” is not only a proverb, it is also a medically sound observation that a well-healed fracture is stronger than the original bone. “An apple a day...” may also be understood as good nutritional advice. Among world proverbs, in-chiding Turkish, there are many pertaining to agriculture which illustrate a general observation or simple truth: The Turkish “Crops are known on the stalk. and the grains on the threshing floor” has its counterpart in the Tamil. ”The future crop is known in the germ.” Similarly “The crop is gathered when It Is mature,” “Plant apple trees in meadows and pear trees on slopes,” and ‘flue best cows are tan, and the best soil is black” are three more from Turkish which offer a general observation or truth. There are many other Turkish proverbs pertaining to agriculture besides the ones mentioned above which also state their observations or truths as advice: “Don’t plant early. It will get frostbitten; don’t plant late, the ground will be dried out.” and “(On the ninth of March, light a torch and prune your trees” (i.e. even if you must do it at night). In fact, a number of proverbs in Turkish pertaining to agriculture refer to the seasons and specific times for planting, harvest­ing etc. See this writer’s own observations.

And at the same risk as he who observed that “all generalizations are false”(!)… Proverbs of a nation do, indeed, “furnish the index to its spirit.” While It would be ridiculous to suggest that if a nation’s proverbs included a number containing the word “donkey”, then that nation and its people must be obsessed with donkeys or the concept of “donkeyness.” it is cer­tainty not folly to suggest that “proverbs of different people... vary…in their rendering of the same idea owing largely to the Influence of environment and climatic conditions,” provided that we extend this idea to include con­sideration of that people’s overall history and cultural heritage. Thus, “In England there is not enough sunshine, but plenty of rain, so ‘Make hay while the sun shines,’ but in Central Asia It Is Just the opposite, so “Fill the jars while it rains’... In England There is no smoke without fire,’ a picture of the cold climate: in Turkey, ‘No leaf moves without a wind, a picture of open air pastoral life.”

Finally, in our discussion of the general characteristics of proverbs, one aspect especially valid for Turkish and the Turks of Turkey (although per­haps somewhat exaggerated in modern times):

In Turkey no conversation takes place without one or more proverbs be­ing mentioned, and it is amazing to see the influence that they make on an audience. As soon as a proverb is recited all heads nod in approval and all arguments cease: a suffering or loss becomes bearable and even death loses its sting...

And In a similar vein, Veled azbudak writes, ‘With regard to the essential nature of proverbs; they are the ‘holy word’ found and read in every Turkish home.

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