Proverbs. They’re old-fashioned, folksy, pithy — and everywhere.  

From old chestnuts like “no pain, no gain” to sports wisdom like “the best offence is a good defence”, there seems to be a proverb for everything. There’s good reason: proverbs touch on just about every aspect of life, providing a connection to truths that go beyond one person or any single moment in time.

Proverbs have many names: they can be called axioms, old saws, sayings and adages. Defining a proverb isn’t easy, but like pornography, most people believe they know it when they see it. Generally, it’s an older saying without a known author that’s considered wise.

If your sibling lost a job to a friend of the boss, you might say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” If your son loses a football match, you say, “You can’t win them all.” If your friend goes through a painful breakup, you’re likely to say, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

For a native speaker, the worst thing about a proverb is probably its overuse. For everyone who finds comfort in sayings like “Everything happens for a reason” and “God only gives you what you can handle,” there’s someone else who finds such sayings maddening. A 2015 article in the Journal of Judgement and Decision Making found a correlation between pseudo-profound malarkey and low intelligence.

It’s never your successful friends posting the inspirational quotes

Still, the best rebuttal to trite inspiring sayings is probably a tweet by comedian Damian Fahey: “It’s never your successful friends posting the inspirational quotes.”

Proverbial verse at work

There’s a proverb for everything, of course, but they’re perhaps nowhere as plentiful as in our daily work life.

Business and proverbs are natural partners for several reasons, says Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations and co-editor, with Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, of The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. As Shapiro puts it, “In business, time really is money,” therefore brevity is a plus. “Business people are going to be attracted to pithy statements because they don’t have time for lengthy discourse.”

That could explain all the jargon we face every day, too. Proverbs — much like Twitter, which is useful for spreading them — are perfect for this time-crunched world. Shapiro also cited the memorability of proverbs and a certain simplicity in the corporate world: “There’s not a lot of subtlety in business. There are basic goals.” 

The timelessness of proverbs is comforting

What’s more, in our work, the timelessness of proverbs is comforting.  John Latham, a PhD in organisation architecture and author of [Re]Create the Organization You Really Want!, says that proverbs are useful in getting across ideas because they, “…point out that this isn’t a new fad idea, but rather timeless wisdom that you can count on”.

The origin of everything

Every proverb has to start somewhere — but where?

Finding out exactly where in the past a proverb emerged is a tough task, akin to looking for a needle not just in a haystack, but in the entire farmland. It’s hard to know exactly how old a saying could be. Lexicographers are constantly antedating words — finding earlier examples — just as palaeontologists discover fossils that prove forms of life are older than anyone believed. A great example is “to regift” — ah, yes, the proverbial giving of a gift you don’t want to someone else (who, perchance, might regift the item, too). Most would swear this word was coined on US TV sitcom Seinfeldin the 1990s, but The Oxford English Dictionary found examples as far back as the 1600s, when a gift was more likely to be a quill than a fruitcake.

There’s also rarely a single, permanent version of a proverb. Like all language, the real story is about variations. For example, the saying, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” has a complex history. Though often attributed to American feminist Gloria Steinem, Shapiro recently found a new oldest example from a 1975 issue of Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Similar phrases are much older. Since the 1950s, people have been saying the puzzling, Zen koan-like “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.” A folk song from 1909 provided two early models: “A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail” and “A man without a woman is like a fish without a tail.” The phrase “fish without a tail” is even older, as the Quote Investigator website recently uncovered an 1858 poem that made this comparison about a bachelor. The task of quote research is both easier and lengthier these days, thanks to a constantly expanding range of searchable databases.

Aging gracefully

The ageless nature of proverbs is something that can make them even more useful than quotations. Though quotations and proverbs have a lot of overlap, there are some key differences between quoting Winston Churchill and repeating an African proverb.

“With quotations, you’re trying to associate with some respected figure like Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain,” says Shapiro. “But with proverbs, you’re trying to do something more elemental and deeper than that. What makes proverbs so popular and powerful is they connect to very deep psychological roots in human beings.” Proverbs become popular because “people use them to connect with other people and the wisdom of the past.”

In our work life, that wisdom is usually used to motivate colleagues and employees. Still, even if a proverb is truly profound and clear, that clarity can have downsides. The simplicity of proverbs can create simplicity of thought, ruling out complex solutions and ideas.

Reliance on proverbs  can contribute to a kind of groupthink and unreflectedness

Reliance on proverbs can “contribute to a kind of groupthink and unreflectedness”, says Shapiro. That, in turn, may keep proverb adherents “from thinking more deeply about what they’re doing.”

But you know what they say: “There’s always another proverb at the end of the tunnel.”

Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon, a look at the history of words like bunk, malarkey, twaddle, and truthiness.

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