The Pulse

Of Ethiopian Proverbs (“Neger Be-Missale”)

Ashenafi Zedebub

“Tej be-brlle , neger be-missale”, is an ancient Ethiopian saying, which literally means ”  “tej “- a traditional drink mainly made from honey- may be drunk out of “brille” – a bulgy glass with a narrow, long neck and “neger” – an example or  a proverb – belongs to oration or talk.

There is also another popular short saying almost similar to the proverb mentioned above,

“Mezmur be-halle, neger be-missale”– This literally means Hallelujah is to Psalms and a proverb to speech.

As scholars, who carried out research on this particular subject indicated, both of the aforementioned proverbs are set strictly in accordance with poetical rules and regulations.

They are put together and arranged in quite symmetrical way. According to the proverb, a drink without the appropriate vessel, the Psalms without Hallelujah is unthinkable, and so a speech without instructive ornament; i.e. proverbs!

“Neger Be-Missale”, popular short saying with words of advice, warning is, one can say, a custom with a history belonging to times long past, handed down from generation to generation and which remained a culture of great significance.

Researchers, historians, writers and travelers from all over the world have always showed great interest in those all well known old Ethiopian proverbs and to the extent that they were filled with admiration. A list of about twenty proverbs in Geez was made as early as the year 1692 by the German scholar Hiob Ludolf in his voluminous commentary on Ethiopian history. Books with collections of thousands of proverbs have also been prepared and compiled by famous Ethiopian authors:- ” Yabatoch Kirss” ( the heritage of  fathers) with some three-thousand eight-hundred proverbs in alphabetical order , by Mahteme Selassie Wolde-Maskal. Furthermore, “Tintawi Missale” (ancient proverbs) by Like-Mezemiran Moges Ogba-Giorgis with almost two-thousand proverbs in addition to riddles and quotations.

As some European writers pointed out, it is not at all easy to explain or understand an Amharic proverb, which by itself is a “problem”, for most of the words appear with several distinctive meanings. As one writer once put it, the Amharic-speaking, the older generation in particular, is fond of words with distinctive meanings.” Pleasure in ambiguity.”

If we take the word “neger “for instance, it has different meanings. Just to mention a few: it would mean a thing, a matter, a gossip, a rumor, a statement, a case, an affair, a negotiation, a conflict, a provocation, a quarrel, a dispute – all these could, not necessarily, but possibly, be represented by “neger”.


“Ke-set neger, ke-beklo medember” – this chauvinistic proverb, for example, reflects the female character and is intended to serve as a warning. “Ke-set neger” : one must expect a “thing” from a woman. In this sense it means, women are talkative, provocative and rumor mongers.  “Ke-beklo medember: ” Beklo” is a mule. This animal, being the off-spring of a male ass and a she-horse, is usually a “runaway”.


Still some more of “neger be-missale”:

–      “Kaltarede ayitay sibatu, kaltenageru yigegne bilhatu . ( So long as it is not slaughtered, e.g. an ox, one may not see its fat, so long as one remains quiet , one may not find solutions).

–    “Yebuna sibatu mefajetu( The fatness of coffee is measured by the heat)

–      “Le-anbessa ayimetru,  le-awaki ayinegru ( one should not chop up meat for a lion, as one must not try to advise a wise man).

However, it does not mean at all that all proverbs are with unmistakable validity in ones life. Few proverbs do not have that much truthfulness.

For instance, the proverb which says “one must not try to advise a wise man” does not seem to be important as to follow it as a matter of principle. In my opinion a wise man is the one who exercises his power of wisdom by seeking advice from another wise man as well. What about you?

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