What Memes are Made Of

The Proverbial truism is back in fashion, through the use of memes. Some hit a funny bone, others a raw nerve. And they are acceptable and shared in as much as other people find them true. This is an interesting way of informing a conforming culture, because the propagation of memes encourages people to own and promote a view which they might have held in private but not owned publicly. The change is brought about by the perception that the people who will see it will agree with it - that what is true for one must be true for all. So we accord the reverential truth to memes that we deny to the Proverbs of Solomon.

Here is a counterpoint to the "meme" phenomenon. The Christian poet George Herbert made a large collection of sayings that were common in England and of varying degrees of antiquity. Some are obscure. Some require several readings to understand the sense. Some are crystal clear. And it is the latter group that I am sharing below. They point to the content of people's lives (what were their ordinary, daily activities), the subtext (what did they assume to be universally true without doubt) and the context (what did they regard as permissible in themselves and others). Far from being a backward and yokel experiment, the best of these sayings points to a culture more rich and consistent than our own.


  1. Old men go to Death, Death comes to young men.

  2. He loseth nothing, that loseth not God.

  3. Who gives to all, denies all.

  4. Love, and a Cough, cannot be hid.

  5. The goat must browse where she is tied.

  6. God oft hath a great share in a little house.

  7. Virtue never grows old.

  8. Never had ill workmen good tools.

  9. He that is warm thinks all so.

  10. He that will learn to pray, let him go to Sea.

  11. All truths are not to be told.

  12. Who would do ill ne'er wants occasion.

  13. Three helping one another, bear the burthen of six.

  14. Love your neighbour, yet pull not down your hedge.

  15. The mill cannot grind with water that's past.

  16. Good words are worth much, and cost little.

  17. God heals, and the Physician hath the thanks.

  18. Think of ease, but work on.

  19. Every path hath a puddle.

  20. In good years corn is hay, in ill years straw is corn.

  21. In life you loved me not, in death you bewail me.

  22. In the house of a fiddler, all fiddle.

  23. Advise none to marry or go to war.

  24. The more women look in their glass, the less they look to their house.

  25. It cost more to do ill than to do well.

  26. Gossips are frogs, they drink and talk.

  27. Many kiss the hand they wish cut off.

  28. He is a fool that thinks not that another thinks.

  29. All is not gold that glisters.

  30. He is not poor that hath little, but he that desireth much.

  31. Be not a Baker, if your head be of butter.

  32. He that sows, trusts in God.

  33. Who spits against heaven, it falls in his face.

  34. He that doth what he will, doth not what he ought.

  35. Love is not found in the market.

  36. He that once deceives, is ever suspected.

  37. Never was a strumpet fair.

  38. Where your will is ready, your feet are light.

  39. Woe to the house where there is no chiding.

  40. The greatest step is that out of doors.

  41. War makes thieves, and peace hangs them.

  42. Fine words dress ill deeds.

  43. Labour as long-lived, pray as even dying.

  44. The wearer knows where the shoe wrings.

  45. When children stand quiet, they have done some ill.

  46. If all fools wore white caps, we should seem a flock of geese.

  47. Pension never enriched a young man.

  48. Music helps not the tooth-ache.

  49. The shortest answer is doing.

  50. He that commits a fault, thinks everyone speaks of it.

  51. The offender never pardons.

  52. Folly grows without watering.

  53. Thursday come, and the week is gone.

  54. The balance distinguisheth not between gold and lead.

  55. To deceive one's self is very easy.

  56. Nothing dries sooner than a tear.

  57. Nothing lasts but the Church.

  58. When my house burns, it is not good playing at Chess.

  59. A holy habit cleanseth not a foul soul.

  60. Pardon all but thyself.

  61. The escaped mouse ever feels the taste of the bait.

  62. When God will punish, he will first take away the understanding.

  63. When it thunders, the thief becomes honest.

  64. It is a bold mouse that nestles in the cat's ear.

  65. Old praise dies, unless you feed it.

  66. Suffer and expect.

  67. Comparisons are odious.

  68. One sword keeps another in the sheath.

  69. Let all live as they would die.

  70. God provides for him that trusteth.

  71. Night is the mother of Councils.

  72. God's Mill grinds slow, but sure.

  73. Everyone thinks his sack heaviest.

  74. Good workmen are seldom rich.

  75. By doing nothing we learn to do ill.

  76. Every sin brings its punishment with it.

  77. Better suffer ill, than do ill.

  78. Praise none too much, for all are fickle.

  79. He that pities another, remembers himself.

  80. He that lends, gives.

  81. In doing we learn.

  82. An ill deed cannot bring honour.

  83. Courtesy on one side only, lasts not long.

  84. He that brings good news knocks hard.

  85. Religion, Credit and the Eye are not to be touched.

  86. The wolf must die in his own skin.

  87. Who praiseth Saint Peter, doth not blame Saint Paul.

  88. He hath not lived, that lives not after death.

  89. It is more pain to do nothing than something.

  90. He hath no leisure that useth it not.

  91. Death keeps no Calendar.

  92. Life is half spent, before we know what it is.

  93. Every mile is two in winter.

  94. No Church-yard is so handsome, that a man would desire straight to be buried there.

  95. We leave more to do when we die, than we have done.

  96. He that tells his wife news, is but newly married.

  97. Who hath no head, needs no heart.

  98. He that lives in hope, danceth without music.

  99. Saint Luke was a Saint and a Physician, yet is dead.

  100. Whatsoever was the father of a disease, an ill diet was the mother.

  101. For the same man to be a heretic and a good subject, is impossible.

  102. Heresy is the school of pride.

  103. An old dog barks not in vain.

  104. A wolf will never make war against another wolf.

  105. Trust no friend with that you need , fear him if he were your enemy.

  106. The Devil never assails a man except he find him either void of knowledge, or of the fear of God.

  107. There is nobody will go to hell for company.

  108. Whatever is made by the hand of man, by the hand of man may be overturned.