One of my pet linguistic peeves is the frequent misuse of the adjective proverbial.

Consider this sentence, from a magazine profile of a government whistleblower: “When she grabs hold of something, she is like the proverbial dog with a bone in its teeth.”

But the expression the writer cites is not a proverb; it’s a simile.

A quick Internet search reveals that just about anything has been incorrectly labeled proverbial: “sitting on the fence,” “in the hot seat,” “throwing in one’s hat,” “getting hit by a beer truck,” and even “the first post on a blog.”

Some dictionaries have shamefully capitulated, sanctioning this solecism. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, gives this as its third definition of proverbial:”Widely referred to, as if [emphasis added] the subject of a proverb; famous.”

As I’ve cautioned in this column, however, dictionaries are not always to be trusted. Many are descriptivist, meaning that they simply reflect how words are commonly used, instead of giving us guidance on how they should be used.

A proverb communicates a truth, principle, or moral lesson in a pointed and pithy style: “Out of sight, out of mind.” “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” And, of course, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Whether adage, aphorism, apothegm, or axiom, a proverb contains a nugget of wisdom, expressed incisively and memorably. Thus, the word proverbial should be used only in reference to a genuine proverb.

So if you’re ever tempted to say something like “The report went astray, like the proverbial car keys,” ask yourself if what you’re referring to really is a proverb.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years.
He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic.
Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World’s Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.”
He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993).
Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise.
Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.