University of Vermont

University Distinguished Professor Program

Burton E. Sobel

Wolfgang Mieder

Wolfgang MiederI should begin, of course, with a Proverb, suggested by one of the many young scholars for whom Wolfgang has provided opportunity.

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”

Wolfgang Mieder has been an esteemed member of the faculty at the University of Vermont since 1971. Beginning as assistant professor, he rose to the top rank of full professor in the Department of German and Russian within just 7 years. He served as chair of the department for thirty-one years, from 1977 to 2008. He has contributed to this university in countless ways as a faculty member, administrator, mentor, friend. His expertise is in the areas of German and international folklore, the history of the German language, the Middle Ages, and especially paremiology, the study of proverbs.

In fact, Professor Mieder is widely considered the leading scholar in the world in the study of proverbs. He has spent decades collecting and studying proverbs covering a wide range of topics and languages, from their use in ancient history to today’s slang.

Most recently, Professor Mieder has published a series of books on the rhetoric of heads of state and social leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Barack Obama. For his study on his hero Martin Luther King, Making a Way out of No Way: Martin Luther King’s Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric, he read some 6,000 pages of King’s published texts, collecting, cataloguing and analyzing the proverbs in the process and thereby telling the story of King’s life, a biography in proverbs. His comprehensive index contains 1,092 proverbs used by King, each shown in every context that King used them, sourced and dated. The title, Making a Way out of No Way, is an African American proverb of unknown origin and for Professor Mieder characterizes King’s struggle for universal rights, more so perhaps than the better known, “I Have a Dream.”

Scholars also credit Professor Mieder with widening the concept of the paremiological minimum, that is, that a certain set of proverbs must have (or have had) currency for a substantial period of time, which in turn demonstrates the central role proverbs play in linguistic and cultural communication. He is also the creator of the term “anti-proverb” for proverbs that are twisted from their original wordings and structures.

An example: “Practice makes perfect.”
Becomes: “If you think practice makes perfect, you don’t have child taking piano lessons.”
Or: “Car drivers are living proof that practice does not make perfect.”

Since 1984, he has been the founding editor of Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship published right here at the University of Vermont. With over 200 authored or edited books, 450 articles, 120 reviews, and 325 invited addresses, he is indeed a most prolific scholar in the world of proverbs and folk narratives.

As a folklorist, he is the first scholar to receive the 3 highest most prestigious world-wide awards: the Pitré International Folklore Prize, the European Fairy Tale Prize, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Folklore Society.

For his 60th birthday, he was honored by three Festschrift publications and again with another volume on his 65th birthday here at the University of Vermont.

A final proverb: “Nothing is done while anything remains to be done.”

Wolfgang has never been in danger of getting nothing done.

Professor Wolfgang Mieder, it is an honor and privilege to award you the title “University Distinguished Professor of German and Folklore”.

—Interim Provost Robert B. Low

Read May 19, 2013
at the University’s 2117th Commencement Ceremony

Last modified June 13 2013 01:32 PM