Title page of the 1508 edition
The compiler, Erasmus

Adagia (singular adagium) is the title of an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, compiled during the Renaissance by Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. Erasmus' collection of proverbs is "one of the most monumental ... ever assembled" (Speroni, 1964, p. 1).

The first edition, titled Collectanea Adagiorum, was published in Paris in 1500, in a slim quarto of around eight hundred entries. By 1508, after his stay in Italy, Erasmus had expanded the collection (now called Adagiorum chiliades or "Thousands of proverbs") to over 3,000 items, many accompanied by richly annotated commentaries, some of which were brief essays on political and moral topics. The work continued to expand right up to the author's death in 1536 (to a final total of 4,151 entries), confirming the fruit of Erasmus' vast reading in ancient literature.

Commonplace examples from Adagia

Many of the adages have become commonplace in many European languages, and we owe our use of them to Erasmus. Equivalents in English include:

  • More haste, less speed
  • One step at a time
  • To be in the same boat
  • To lead one by the nose
  • A rare bird
  • Even a child can see it
  • To have one foot in Charon's boat (To have one foot in the grave)
  • To walk on tiptoe
  • One to one
  • Out of tune
  • A point in time
  • I gave as bad as I got (I gave as good as I got)
  • To call a spade a spade
  • Hatched from the same egg
  • Up to both ears (Up to his eyeballs)
  • As though in a mirror
  • Think before you start
  • What's done cannot be undone
  • Many parasangs ahead (Miles ahead)
  • We cannot all do everything
  • Many hands make light work
  • A living corpse
  • Where there's life, there's hope
  • To cut to the quick
  • Time reveals all things
  • Golden handcuffs
  • Crocodile tears
  • To show the middle finger
  • You have touched the issue with a needle-point (To have nailed it)
  • To walk the tightrope
  • Time tempers grief (Time heals all wounds)
  • With a fair wind
  • To dangle the bait
  • To swallow the hook
  • The bowels of the earth
  • From heaven to earth
  • The dog is worthy of his dinner
  • To weigh anchor
  • To grind one's teeth
  • Nowhere near the mark
  • Complete the circle
  • In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
  • A cough for a fart
  • No sooner said than done
  • Neither with bad things nor without them (Women: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em)
  • Between a stone and a shrine (Between a rock and a hard place)
  • Like teaching an old man a new language (Can't teach an old dog new tricks)
  • A necessary evil
  • There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip
  • To squeeze water out of a stone
  • To leave no stone unturned
  • Let the cobbler stick to his last (Stick to your knitting)
  • God helps those who help themselves
  • The grass is greener over the fence
  • The cart before the horse
  • Dog in the manger
  • One swallow doesn't make a summer
  • His heart was in his boots
  • To sleep on it
  • To break the ice
  • Ship-shape
  • To die of laughing
  • To have an iron in the fire
  • To look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Neither fish nor flesh
  • Like father, like son
  • Not worth a snap of the fingers
  • He blows his own trumpet
  • To show one's heels


The work reflects a typical Renaissance attitude toward classical texts: to wit, that they were fit for appropriation and amplification, as expressions of a timeless wisdom first uncovered by the classical authors. It is also an expression of the contemporary Humanism: the Adagia could only have happened via the developing intellectual environment in which careful attention to a broader range of classical texts produced a much fuller picture of the literature of antiquity than had been possible, or desired, in medieval Europe. In a period in which sententiæ were often marked by special fonts and footnotes in printed texts, and in which the ability to use classical wisdom to bolster modern arguments was a critical part of scholarly and even political discourse, it is not surprising that Erasmus' Adagia was among the most popular volumes of the century.

Source: Erasmus, Desiderius. Adages in Collected Works of Erasmus. Trans. R.A.B Mynors et al. Volumes 31–36. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982–2006. (A complete annotated translation into English. There is a one-volume selection: Erasmus, Desiderius. Adages. Ed. William Barker. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.)


External links

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