The Language Perfectionist: A “Proverbial” Proviso

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.]