Anti-proverb

fruit fly by Emily Grandin

An anti-proverb or a ‘perverb’ is the transformation of a standard proverb for humorous effect. Paremiologist (proverb scholar) Wolfgang 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.’

There have been various attempts at classifying different types of anti-proverbs, based on structure and semantics. Classification schemes can be based on: Association (the similarity to the original sequence is strong enough to identify it, but there is no further connection; e.g. ‘the early worm gets picked first’), Change of homonyms (a word which has several meanings is interpreted in a new way, e.g. ‘where there’s a will, there’s a lawsuit’), Combination (two sequences are combined; e.g. one brain washes the other), Permutation (while keeping the syntactic structure, the words are jumbled; e.g. a waist is a terrible thing to mind), Abridgement (the sequence is cut and thus changed completely; e.g. ‘all’s well that ends’), Substitution (parts of the sequence are replaced; e.g. absence makes the heart go wander), or Supplementation (a sentence with a contrasting meaning is added to the original sequence; e.g. ‘a man’s home is his castle – let him clean it’).

Another set of classifications is based on content criteria: Mitigation (the meaning seems kept, but is qualified by the supplement; e.g. ‘everything has an end, but a pudding has two’), Athesis (the message of the original sequence is destroyed but no new meaning is established; e.g. ‘guns don’t kill – ammunition does’), Conservation (the meaning is similar, with and without the supplement; e.g. 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; e.g. all we need is love – all we get is homework), Break of metaphor (metaphors are interpreted literally; e.g. ‘Duty is calling? We call back’), Neogenesis (the meaning of the new sentence is completely independent of the original one; e.g. ‘an onion a day keeps everybody away’), and Rejection (the original assertion is rejected; e.g. ‘when marriage is outlawed, only outlaws will have in-laws’).

Anti-proverbs can also be classified by humourous effect. ‘Bisociation’ is a technical term coined by journalist Arthur Koestler. He said 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 (e.g. ‘I only want your best – your money’). Another theory, ‘Destruction,’ argues that if the sublime is pulled down to banality, some feel validated. Generally, this is funnier than the contrary. Therefore many humorous transformations are made this way, such as ‘Jesus may love you – but will he respect you in the morning?’ A third theory, ‘Fictional Catastrophe,’ holds that 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 a train.’

The term has also been used to describe a ‘garden path sentence’ (a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect) 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 (e.g. ‘time flies like to fly around clocks’). Perverbs beginning with ‘time flies like’ are popular examples in linguistics 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.

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