Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance humanist and theologian, was always fascinated by proverbs and adages and the pithy truths contained therein. His first book was Adagia, published in 1500, which was a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs taken from literary sources. One of its aims was to educate people in how language could be used to communicate important ideas. The first edition was a slim booklet containing about 800 adages, but Erasmus added to it throughout his life and, after around 170 editions, the book finally ended up containing over 4000 adages.
Erasmus did not make up the proverbs, and they may have been known to English scholars at the time he was writing. Many of the proverbs in this 500-year-old book are still in common use in English today, or are very similar to modern-day expressions:
Many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip
Out of the frying pan into the fire
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
One swallow doesn’t make a spring
Make haste slowly
To have one’s foot in the grave
Well begun is half done
Other adages in the book provide a pithy and scathing social criticism, eg War is sweet to those who have never tried it.
It is thanks to Erasmus that we talk today of Pandora’s box, and not Pandora’s jar, which was the container mentioned in Greek mythology. Similarly, we say ‘call a spade a spade’, because Erasmus mistranslated, either unintentionally, or perhaps intentionally in order to use a word more familiar to the Dutch people, the Greek σκαφη (skaphe), which meant ‘trough’.