An anti-proverb or a perverb is the transformation of a standard proverb for humorous effect. Mieder defines them as "parodied, twisted, or fractured proverbs that reveal humorous or satirical speech play with traditional proverbial wisdom". They have also been defined as "an allusive distortion, parody, misapplication, or unexpected contextualization of a recognized proverb, usually for comic or satiric." To have full effect, an anti-proverb must be based on a known proverb. For example, "If at first you don't succeed, quit" is only funny if the hearer knows the standard proverb "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Anti-proverbs are used commonly in advertising, such as "Put your burger where your mouth is" from Red Robin. Anti-proverbs are also common on T-shirts, such as "Taste makes waist" and "If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you".
Anti-proverbs have been used and recognized a long time, though the term "anti-proverb" was not coined until 1982 by Wolfgang Mieder. The term became more established with the publication of Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna T. Litovkina,
Standard proverbs are essentially defined phrases, well-known to many people, as e. g. Don't bite the hand that feeds you. When this sequence slightly changed (Don’t bite the hand that looks dirty) it becomes an anti-proverb.
There have been various attempts at classifying different types of anti-proverbs, based on structure and semantics, including by Mieder, Litovkina, and Valdeva. What follows is somewhat synthetic of these.
They were one of the many experimental styles explored by the French literary movement Oulipo. The term is attributed to Maxine Groffsky. The concept was popularised by Oulipo collaborator Harry Mathews in his Selected Declarations of Dependence (1977).
Classification on formal criteria
- Association: The similarity to the original sequence is strong enough to identify it, but there is no further connection: The early worm gets picked first.
- Change of homonyms: A word which has several meanings is interpreted in a new way: Where there's a will, there's a lawsuit
- Combination: Two sequences are combined: One brain washes the other.
- Permutation: While keeping the syntactic structure, the words are jumbled: A waist is a terrible thing to mind.
- Abridgement: The sequence is cut and thus changed completely: All's well that ends.
- Substitution: Parts of the sequence are replaced: Absence makes the heart go wander.
- Supplementation: A sentence with a contrasting meaning is added to the original sequence: A man's home is his castle – let him clean it.
- Syntactic change: The semantic structure of the sentence changes while the sequence of words stays the same: Men think: "God governs." – A good man will think of himself: after, all the others.
Classification on content criteria
- Mitigation: The meaning seems kept, but is qualified by the supplement: Everything has an end, but a pudding has two.
- Apology: The original sequence is defended against attacks: German example, translated: Art (Kunst) comes from 'able' (können), not from 'will' (wollen), or we'd better call it wirt (Wulst, fantasy word).
- Athesis: The message of the original sequence is destroyed but no new meaning is established: Guns don't kill – ammunition does.
- Conservation: The meaning is similar, with and without the supplement: There is no such thing as a free lunch, but there is always free cheese in a mousetrap.
- Contrast: The original meaning is put in relation to another sphere of life: All we need is love – all we get is homework.
- Break of metaphor: Metaphors are interpreted literally: Duty is calling? We call back.
- Neogenesis: The meaning of the new sentence is completely independent of the original one: An onion a day keeps everybody away.
- Rejection: The original assertion is rejected: When marriage is outlawed, only outlaws will have in-laws.
- Synthesis: A meaningful sentence consists of some phrases; Some of these classes are divided into sub-classes.
Types of humorous effects
- Bisociation: This is a technical term coined by Arthur Koestler. He says that a funny text is situated in two different semantic levels. In the beginning, the hearer or reader is aware of only one of them. In the punch line, the second level comes up so suddenly that he starts laughing. The sudden coming up of the second level is the point. For example: I only want your best – your money.
- Destruction: If the sublime is pulled down to banality, some of us feel validated. Generally, this is funnier than the contrary. Therefore many humorous transformations are made up this way: Jesus may love you – but will he respect you in the morning?
- Fictional catastrophe: Unlike real disasters, catastrophes which are only made up or solved in one's mind might be humorous, as can be seen in the quotation: The light at the end of the tunnel is only muzzle flash.
Splicing of two proverbs
According to Quinion, the word perverb originally meant the result of splicing of the beginning of one proverb to the ending of another:
- A rolling stone gets the worm.
("A rolling stone gathers no moss" + "The early bird gets the worm".)
- The road to Hell wasn’t paved in a day.
("The road to Hell is paved with good intentions" + "Rome wasn't built in a day".)
- A fool and his money is a friend indeed
("A fool and his money are soon parted" + "A friend in need is a friend indeed".)
Garden path proverb
The term has also been used to describe a garden path sentence based on a proverb; namely, a sentence that starts out like the proverb, but ends in such a way that the listener is forced to back up and re-parse several words in order to get its real sense:
- Time flies like to fly around clocks.
("time flies like an arrow" / the habits of "time flies", a fictitious kind of fly.)
Perverbs beginning with Time flies like ... are popular examples in linguistics, e.g. to illustrate concepts related to syntax parsing. These examples are presumably inspired by the quip "Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like a banana", attributed to Groucho Marx.
To be effective in written form, a garden-path perverb must have the same spelling and punctuation as the original proverb, up to the point where the reader is supposed to back up, as in the "time flies" example above. These spelling or punctuation constraints may be relaxed in perverbs that are spoken, rather than written:
- Don't count your chickens will do it for you.
("don't count your chickens before they hatch" / "don't count, your chickens will ...")
- Think before you were born you were already loved.
("think before you act" vs. "think: before you were born, you were ...")
- You can't teach an old dog would be better for your students.
("you can't teach an old dog new tricks" / "you can't teach; an old dog would be ...")
Proverb with surprising or silly ending
The term is also used in the weaker sense of any proverb that was modified to have an unexpected, dumb, amusing, or nonsensical ending — even if the changed version is no harder to parse than the original:
- All that glitters is not dull.
("All that glitters is not gold".)
- See a pin and pick it up, and all day long you'll have a pin.
("See a pin and pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck".)
- A penny saved is a penny taxed.
("A penny saved is a penny earned".)
- It's not fun and games until/unless someone loses an eye.
("It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye.")
- Misery loves bacon.
("Misery loves company.")
The perverb "A rolling stone gathers momentum" (based on the saying by Publilius Syrus) is moderately popular in technology-minded circles, having been featured in several bumper stickers and T-shirts.
Pun on a proverb
- Slaughter is the best medicine.
("Laughter is the best medicine".)
- Fine swords butter no parsnips.
("Fine words butter no parsnips".)
- What doesn't kill you makes you stranger.
("What doesn't kill you makes you stronger".)
- Nothing succeeds like excess.
("Nothing succeeds like success".)
- , p. 28, Mieder, Wolfgang. 2004. Proverbs: A Handbook. (Greenwood Folklore Handbooks). Greenwood Press.
- p. xi, Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, & Fred Shapiro. The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Wolfgang Mieder and Barbara Mieder, 1977, Journal of Popular Culture, 11:308-319.
- Supplement volume to Proverbium. University of Vermont.
- pp. 17-26, Litovkina, Anna Tóthné and Wolfgang Mieder. 2006. Old proverbs never die, they just diversify: a collection of anti-proverbs. Burlington: University of Vermont and Veszprém, Hungary: Pannonian University of Veszprém.
- Valdeva, Tatiana. 2003. Anti-proverbs or new proverbs: The use of English anti-proverbs and their stylistic analysis. Proverbium 20:379-390.
- Quinion, Michael. "Perverb". World Wide Words. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
- Taylor, Paul (2003). "Perverberations". Retrieved 2007-09-24.
- Groucho Marx quotes at www.quoteworld.org. Accessed on 2009-08-14.
- Quinion, Michael (22 June 2002). "Butter no parsnips". World Wide Words. Retrieved January 17, 2012.
- Aleksa, Melita, T. Litovkina Anna, Hrisztova-Gotthardt, Hrisztalina. 2009. The Reception of Anti-Proverbs in the German Language Area. Proceedings of the Second Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Proverbs, Soares, Rui, JB, Lauhakangas, Outi (ed). -Tavira, pp. 83–98. Tavira, Portugal.
- Gossler, Erika: Besser arm dran als Bein ab. Anti-Sprichwörter und ihresgleichen. Vienna 2005. (In German) ISBN 3-7069-0162-5.
- Litovkina, Anna T. 2011. “Where there’s a will there’s a lawyer’s bill”: Lawyers in Anglo-American anti-proverbs. Acta Juridica Hungarica 52.1: 82-96.
- Litovkina, Anna T., Katalin Vargha, Péter Barta, Hrisztalina Hrisztova-Gotthardt. 2007. Most frequent types of alteration in Anglo-American, German, French, Russian and Hungarian anti-proverbs. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 52.1: 47-103.
- Milică, Ioan. 2013. Proverbes et anti-proverbes. Philologica Jassyensia An IX, Nr. 1 (17), p. 63 – 68.
- Reznikov, Andrey. 2009. Old Wine in New Bottles. Modern Russian Anti-Proverbs. Proverbium Supplement Series, Volume 27. ISBN 978-0-9817122-1-5