It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings
Meaning: Nothing is ever finished or determined until the final act has been completed.
The precise origins of this saying are a matter of debate. But it is likely that the proverb is a reference to Wagner’s interminably long four-opera Ring Cycle. This work is concluded by the character Brunnhilde’s 10-minute solo.
Brunnhilde was usually portrayed by a large woman. As the Ring Cycle took 14 hours to perform, members of the audience might well have found themselves feeling relieved when the fat lady sang and the show was over.
The fat lady saying is relatively modern and it may not survive whereas others such as Murphy’s law is likely to remain “Murphy’s law: If an aircraft part can be installed incorrectly, someone will install it that way.” it is fundamental to engineering design and is also known as Sod’s law.
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Meaning: It’s better to keep what you already have than to attempt to get something better at the risk of losing everything.
This proverb relates to medieval falconry. The bird of prey on the falconer’s hand was a valuable asset and worth much more than two wild birds in the bush. Written records suggest that similar phrases have been used since the middle of the 15thcentury.
A stitch in time saves nine
Meaning: A timely effort will prevent more work at a later date.
It might sound like this proverb is a reference to the space/time continuum, but its origins are much more mundane. The saying refers to sewing and suggests that if you stitch a hole when it first appears, it won’t grow larger and require many more stitches to repair it.
The proverb was first recorded in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732. However, it was probably used long before this date.
Strike while the iron is hot
Meaning: To act decisively when an opportunity arises.
It isn’t known when this proverb was first used but it refers to the work of a blacksmith who would heat metal to make it pliable. If he didn’t shape the metal as soon as it was hot enough, it would quickly cool and became too hard to manipulate.
It’s raining cats and dogs
Meaning: It’s raining heavily.
There is perhaps more debate about the origin of this proverb than any other. Many reasons for its use have been suggested. No evidence has been found to support any of these. The most likely source of the term is the Greek expression cata doxa which means “contrary to experience or belief.” Cats and dogs could also be derived from the Old English word catadupe which mean “waterfall”.
As far as translation is concerned proverbs can pose difficulties and so one should be aware of the pitfalls of doing a literal translation of, “Its raining cats and dogs” whereas in French “il pleut des cordes” which is different but means the same. In parts of Yorkshire they say “It’s siling stair-rods” which gives us, “it’s stair rodding it down”.
Many hands make light work – Too many cooks spoil the broth
One criticism of proverbs is that they often contradict, some people look down on them as being clichés and homespun wisdom which should not appear in reputable articles. There is a place for everything however and the form continues to develop in everyday life, the most widely used examples can be found in The Concise Dictionary of Proverbs by the OED.