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COVID-19 (Post)proverbials: Twisting the Word Against the Virus

Sections from the essay:

Breaking the Outbreak

In the ascendancy of COVID-19, different categories of creative materials including memes, video and audio skits, GIFs, quips and proverbs are produced in the social media as part of the larger sociological and psychological (motivational) responses to the disease. Particularly, some inventive turns have been served on a number of proverbs that they can be categorized as novel creations of the postproverbial imagination, given the strains noticeable in the breaking and re-composition of the words. Amidst the challenge and containment of the affliction, the strains of invented proverbs are phenomenal reactions of the people to the outbreak, deserving of attention and analysis. The radical imagination of the users of the proverb text within particular language communities are evident of their philosophy of engagement with the pandemic. The postproverbial text itself is a cultural-linguistic ‘outbreak’, an outgrowthof the conventional text, thus, symbolically, a response to the viral outbreak.



The Postproverbial Order 

Transgressive paremiology is the study of innovations and transformations in contemporary proverb scholarship. Its crucial interest is to deal with significant structural violence done to traditional or conventional proverbs, the deconstruction of the idiomatic pathogen of the conventional utterance which invariably affects its meaning, knowledge transmission, and the overarching philosophy of life.


To be sure, conventional proverbs have never been dismissed as jaded, outworn or clichés in spite of their ubiquitous and repetitive use. Yet, the human penchant for creativity, modernist or iconoclastic energies, coupled with a critical detachment from the heritage of traditional wisdom have questioned the sacrosanct status of the proverbial text in culture. The term“antisprichwort”(German for “anti-proverb”)was first used by Wolfgang Mieder in 1983.[1]Mieder would collaborate later with Anna Litovkina, the Hungarian sociolinguist, to publish the first major work on the tradition of innovation in the use and making of proverbs by publishing Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs(1999). In European and Anglo-American studies, proverb scholars have drawn on the label “anti-proverb” for alterations, transgressions and transformations: anti(-)proverb(French), aнтиnословицa (Russian), and anti(-)proverbium (Hungarian). In African proverbscholarship,the term “postproverbial” was first coined in 1995 by AderemiRaji-Oyeladein an essay that would bepublished later in Research in African Literaturesin 1999.[2]



COVID-19 Postproverbials: Interpreting the Twisted Word

The set of COVID-19 postproverbials collected so far are verbal reflections on the reality of the pandemic, the experience of lockdown, social distancing, hygiene as well as the invocation and reification of the morbid potential and presence of the virus in the community. The interpretive minimum which runs through all but one of these radicalized texts is the personification of the coronavirus as subject and agency. As organized, each pair of proverb text for analysis contains the conventional proverb and the postproverbial engendered by the disease; thus, the commentary that follows serves as contextual explication of the interrelation of the given proverbemes. In the basic structural pattern of the postproverbial act, a part of the conventional proverb - clausal, phrasal or lexical - is suspended and replaced by a newly extracted clause, phrase or lexis which is directly related to coronavirus as agency. In other cases, the conventional proverb remains intact but supplemented by a postproverbial retort. The double act of suspension and superimposition which takes place is a structural fissure, albeit, a locking down or twinning of the old with a new artifice which thus gives birth to a hybrid or rogue text.

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       [1]Mieder, W. Antisprichwörter. Band I. Wiesbaden: Verlag für deutsche Sprache, 1983.

       [2]Relevant publications on postproverbials or anti-proverbs include: 

Raji-Oyelade, A. “Posting the African Proverb: A Grammar of Yoruba Postproverbials, or Logophagia, Logorrhea and the Grammar of Yoruba Postproverbials.” Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship21(2004): 299-314; T. Litovkina, A. andMieder, W. Old Proverbs Never Die, They Just Diversify: A Collection of Anti-Proverbs. Burlington & Veszprém: The University of Vermont & The Pannonian University of Veszprém, 2006; Mieder, W. “Anti-Proverbs and Mass Communication: The Interplay of Traditional and Innovative Folklore”. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 52.1 (2007): 17-46;Aleksa, M. and Hrisztova-Gotthardt, H. & T. Litovkina, A. “The Reception of Anti-Proverbs in the German Language Area”, in Soares, R. & Lauhagankas, O. (eds.), Actas ICP08 Proceedings. Tavira: Tipografia Tavirense, 2009. pp. 83-98; and Raji-Oyelade, A. Playful Blasphemies: Postproverbials as Archetypes of Modernity in Yoruba Culture. Trier: Wissenchaftlicher Verlag, 2012.