counting chickens


A perverb (portmanteau of "perverse proverb") is a humorous modification of a known proverb, usually by changing its ending in a way that surprises or confounds the listener.

Perverbs were one of the many experimental styles explored by the French literary movement Oulipo. The term is attributed to Maxine Groffsky . The concept was popularised by Oulipo collaborator Harry Mathews in his Selected Declarations of Dependence (1977).


Splicing of two proverbs

According to Quinion, the word originally meant the result of splicing of the beginning of one proverb to the ending of another:

  • A rolling stone gets the worm.
  • The road to Hell wasn’t paved in a day.
  • A fool and his money is a friend indeed.

Proverb with surprising or silly ending

The term perverb is also used in the weaker sense of any proverb that was modified to have an unexpected, dumb, amusing, or nonsensical ending — even if the changed version is no harder to parse than the original:

  • A rolling stone gathers momentum.
  • All that glitters is not dull.
  • Don't put the cart before the aardvark.
  • See a pin and pick it up, and all day long you'll have a pin.

Garden path proverb

The word has also been used to describe a sentence that starts out like a well-known proverb or other expression, but ends in such an unexpected way that the listener is forced to back up and re-parse several words in order to get its sense, as in a garden path sentence:

  • You can take a horse to water it down, but be sure to return it.
  • Don't count your chickens will do it for you.
  • Think before you were born you were already loved.
  • While there is life better than while here?
  • You can't teach an old dog would be better for your students.
  • Time flies like to fly around clocks.

To be effective, a written perverb must have correct syntax, spelling, and punctuation, as in the "time flies" example above. Those that require a change in spelling or punctuation, like the "counting chickens" example above, may still qualify as "oral" perverbs.

Pun on a proverb

The word has also been used for puns on proverbs:

  • Fine swords butter no parsnips
  • Slaughter is the best medicine

Perverbs in entertainment and culture

The perverb A rolling stone gathers momentum (based on the saying by Publilius Syrus, A rolling stone gathers no moss) is moderately popular in technology-minded circles, having been featured in several bumper stickers and T-shirts.

Perverbs beginning with Time flies like ... are popular examples in linguistics, e.g. to illustrate the concept of garden-path sentences. They are presumably inspired on the quip Time flies like the wind; fruit flies like a banana, attributed to Groucho Marx.

Perverbs in other cultures

Russian language

In 1970s the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in its humor column used to print modified Russian proverbs. Some of them survived in Russian culture. One kind of modification was to replace inherently Russian words in the proverb by foreign analogs. For example the say "По Сеньке и шапка" (literally, "Semyon's hat must fit Semyon", meaning variously "fame must match merit" or "one must know one's place") was transformed into "по Хуану и сомбреро, i.e., "Juan's hat must match Juan" and alleged to be a "Spanish folk proverb".

In modern times, perverbs are widely propagated in the Russian internet. An article in the "Bulletin of MAPRYAL" ("Вестник МАПРЯЛ", a publication of the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature) gives a detailed taxonomy of the paraphrased Russian proverbs and sayings.



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