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A perverb (portmanteau of "perverse proverb") is a humorous modification of a known proverb, usually by changing its ending in a way that surprises or confounds the listener.

Perverbs were one of the many experimental styles explored by the French literary movement Oulipo. The term is attributed to Maxine Groffsky [1]. The concept was popularised by Oulipo collaborator Harry Mathews in his Selected Declarations of Dependence (1977)[1].



Splicing of two proverbs

According to Quinion[1], 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[2]
    ("A fool and his money are soon apart" + "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 on the quip "Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like a banana", attributed to Groucho Marx.[3]

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.
    ("dont 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:

  • A rolling stone gathers momentum.
    ("A rolling stone gathers no moss".)
  • 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".)

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

The word has also been used for puns on proverbs[1]:

  • Slaughter is the best medicine.
    ("Laughter is the best medicine".)
  • Fine swords butter no parsnips.
    ("Fine words butter no parsnips".)

Perverbs in other cultures

Perverbs are popular in Russia, especially on the Internet.[4] In the 1970s, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda used to print them in its humor column. Some are derived from Russian proverbs by replacing Russian words with foreign ones, e.g.

  • По Хуану и сомбреро, "[Juan's] sombrero must fit Juan".[5]
    (from По Сеньке и шапка, "[Simeon's] hat must fit Simeon", in the sense of "fame must match merit".[6])

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Quinion, Michael (2005-05-07). "World Wide Words". Retrieved 2007-09-24.  
  2. ^ Paul Taylor (2003). "Perverberations". Retrieved 2007-09-24.  
  3. ^ Groucho Marx quotes at Accessed on 2009-08-14.
  4. ^ А. В. Андреева (2004) "Лингвистический анализ перефразированных пословиц и поговорок русского языка" Вестник МАПРЯЛ (Bulletin of MAPRYAL), International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature, no. 45. (Russian) Gives a detailed taxonomy of the paraphrased Russian proverbs and sayings.
  5. ^ Google search for the perverb По Хуану и сомбреро ("Juan's sombrero must match Juan") (Russian)
  6. ^ По Сеньке и шапка ("Semyon's hat must fit Semyon") Page on the Russian perverb (Russian). Accessed on 2009-07-11.

External links

  • Time Flies, a poem by Adam Rulli-Gibbs (2002—2006).

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