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Pronounced /ˈpəːˌvɜːb/Help with IPA

The idea behind perverbs developed in the French experimental literary group Oulipo (Ouvrir de Littérature Potentielle), which applies various algorithmic constraints to creating playful and whimsical works of literature.

One example is a book of ten sonnets with the 14 lines cut into strips so that any line can be combined with any other to make 100,000 billion new ones. Another is the ancient form called the lipogram — a text written without using a letter of the alphabet — such as La Disparition, a French-language novel by George Perec, a member of the group, which omits the letter e throughout.

Another member was the American Harry Matthews, who popularised perverbs in his Selected Declarations of Dependence in 1977. You create one by snapping a couple of existing proverbs in half and joining the end of one to the beginning of the other:

A rolling stone gets the worm,
A bird in the hand waits for no man,
Don’t count your chickens before you can walk,
The devil takes the sailor’s delight, and
The road to Hell wasn’t paved in a day.

The trick has since gained a small but respectable niche among aficionados of wordplay. Matthews, in an article in The Paris Review in Spring 2007, credits the invention of the name to Maxine Groffsky. It’s a blend or portmanteau from perverted proverb.

The internet may also be a good way to generate many other sorts of wordplay, in particular what Harry Mathews calls perverbs, the combining of two proverbs into one. Combining two news headlines or two disparate celebrities would also result in perverbial nonsense: “Putin to testify at molestation trial of imprisoned oil tycoon Michael Jackson.”

The Guardian, 14 Apr. 2005.

Page created 7 May 2005
Last updated 21 Nov. 2011

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Last modified: 21 November 2011.