My boss asked me if his translation of a Japanese proverb was accurate the other day. Unfortunately, I don't have the Japanese written down with me, but I can describe it. His translation was "better dumplings than flowers". In Japanese, apparently the meaning of the proverb is 'someone who values items with practical use over aesthetic qualities'. Is there an English proverb equivalent?

  • 5
    The Japanese is 花より団子 ("hana yori dango"). – user230 Mar 6 '13 at 9:43
  • Is the saying someone who values items [...] or is it is more valuable to be practical [...] a more accurate translation? – horatio Mar 6 '13 at 22:20
  • @snailboat Isn't that "Boys over flowers."? – Soulz May 30 '13 at 23:10
  • 1
    @Soulz No, "Boys over Flowers" (花より男子) is the title of a manga series, which is a pun on the proverb. (It replaces 団 with 男.) – user230 May 30 '13 at 23:34
  • Is the contex of this question about food? Something that is really edible as opposed to something that looks good but is less edible? See my answer below. – Tom Au Jun 5 '13 at 20:49

A very common English term in this general area is:

style over substance (and something may be described as all style and no substance).

...where oxforddictionaries defines substance as:

the subject matter of a text, speech, or work of art, especially as contrasted with the form or style in which it is presented:
the movie is a triumph of style over substance

That expression applies to things people might or might not value, rather than describing a person who favours one attribute over the other. I can't think of a "proverb" alluding to either preference, but if you're much more interested in substance/functionality rather than style/form, you're a:

pragmatist - person oriented toward the success or failure of a particular line of action, thought, etc.;

And for closely related "sayings" which are very common...

actions speak louder than words - what someone does is more important than what someone says.
fine words butter no parsnips - nothing is achieved by empty words or flattery.

  • 5
    "style over substance " is the opposite of what the OP asked. It is the viewpoint that the proverb might remonstrate against; not what it proposes. – Brian Hitchcock May 3 '15 at 10:52
  • @Brian: True, but I did say that one's in the general area (it just happens to be "180° out" :). In both this and several other answers here the poster explicitly admits he doesn't know of any specific "saying" with the exact sense requested. And I have included pragmatist for a straight noun - plus a couple of idiomatic usages also in the same general area with similar meanings to the target expression, rather than being diametrically opposite. – FumbleFingers May 4 '15 at 17:44
  • 1
    "Style over substance" means the complete opposite to what OP is looking for as Brian says. – user17814 Apr 23 '19 at 1:45
  • @KentaroTomono: Indeed. But it's still an idiomatic usage "in this general area", in that it deals with the same explicit contrast between "appearance" and "functionality". And I have provided two examples favouring pragmatism over aesthetics, in actions speak louder than words and fine words butter no parsnips. – FumbleFingers Apr 24 '19 at 12:14
  • 1
    @Sam: I don't think I've ever heard anyone use "style over substance" in a context where it might be implicitly understood that "style" is actually better than "substance". So far as I'm concerned, it's always pejorative (never even neutral, let alone favourable towards choices made on the basis of appearance rather than functionality) – FumbleFingers May 19 '19 at 14:06

I can't think of an actual proverb, but you can certainly describe the essence idiomatically. I would personally use the following construction.

I would rather have a <Practical Thing> than a <Pretty Thing> any day.

Where I live, we don't eat dumplings, so we need a different example of a practical thing.

Here are a couple ideas:

She would rather have chocolates than flowers any day.

He was the kind of person that would take an oil change over a car wash any day.

  • Chocolates are a comfort food, and thus inappropriate here. And a car wash can be very practical. – user6951 May 3 '15 at 15:36

In America, mothers used to warn their sons that in choosing a mate, "Cooking lasts, kissing doesn't." The parallel with the Japanese proverb is not perfect, but pretty strong.

Put another way, flowers are pretty to look at, but dumplings are something that you can actually eat.

A mother who would choose "cooking" over "kissing" for her son, would also choose "dumplings" over "flowers."

  • So far, you're the only one to directly address the question, rather than going off in the opposite direction, or making up descriptions about chocolates or oil changes which are not statements in favor of the pragmatic. – Brian Hitchcock May 3 '15 at 11:01

Since you are thinking about aesthetic, all show and no go

equipped with good looks but lacking action or energy. (Used to describe someone or something that looks good but does not perform as promised.) That shiny car of Jim's is all show and no go. He's mighty handsome, but I hear he's all show and no go.

  • See my comment under FumbleFingers' answer. – Brian Hitchcock May 3 '15 at 10:54
  • As @Brian has pointed out, this has the opposite meaning – user6951 May 3 '15 at 15:22

I'm not aware of an English-language proverb that refers to “someone who values items with practical use over aesthetic qualities”. There are numerous colorful phrases for referring to people of an opposite nature; for a list, see the Synonyms section of wiktionary's “all hat and no cattle” entry. (The “all sizzle and no steak” item may be a reaction to a marketing adage, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”.) The meanings of most forms like “All X and no Y” can be reversed by saying “All X, and Y too”, which means one has significant style, with some substance underlying it, or by saying “Not just Y, but X too”, which means one has not merely substance but also style.

Some quotations or sayings that laud practicality vs aesthetics include
• “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work” – Mark Twain
• “It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.” – Oscar Wilde
• “All that glitters is not gold” – adapted from Chaucer and Shakespeare
• “Don't quarrel with bread and butter” – trad.


I don’t know of any English proverb which captures the sense you describe. But Charles Dickens wrote a novel on this opposition, Hard Times, and the name of one of its characters has become something of a symbol of the narrowly pragmatic attitude.

MR. GRADGRIND walked homeward from the school, in a state of considerable satisfaction. It was his school, and he intended it to be a model. He intended every child in it to be a model - just as the young Gradgrinds were all models.
 There were five young Gradgrinds, and they were models every one. They had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed, like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture-room. The first object with which they had an association, or of which they had a remembrance, was a large black board with a dry Ogre chalking ghastly white figures on it.
 Not that they knew, by name or nature, anything about an Ogre. Fact forbid! I only use the word to express a monster in a lecturing castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.
 No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles's Wain like a locomotive engine-driver. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.

One who holds rigidly to the “better dumplings than flowers” philosophy is a Gradgrind.

  • This tale is a parable against (excessive) pragmatism, not a proverb in favor of pragmatism. – Brian Hitchcock May 3 '15 at 10:56
  • Most people never heard of Gradgrind, which sort of ruins it as popular saying. – user6951 May 3 '15 at 15:21
  • @BrianHitchcock OP asked for something describing "'someone who values items with practical use over aesthetic qualities" – StoneyB on hiatus May 3 '15 at 18:03
  • @pazzo Alas, I'm showing my age. Most educated people of my generation would know Gradgrind. – StoneyB on hiatus May 3 '15 at 18:04
  • 1
    I'm sure it has to be something besides your generation. I've not heard it used by folks of any generation. Most dictionaries (including my tabletop M-W Collegiate) don't include the word; this is also seen by the lack of dictionary returns from a search on OneLook. Other explanations are as feasable: such as your being a Dickens fan, attuned to words from Dickens, or maybe it's regional. – user6951 May 3 '15 at 18:13

There's an English phrase "form follows function".

This phrase describes the idea that how something works is more important than how it looks, which is pretty close to what you're describing.

Here's an article describing the concept in more detail.

By the way, some people follow the opposite approach: "form over function". With this idea, the aesthetics of something are more important than how they actually work - "if it's beautiful and easy to use, we'll get people to use it and we can figure out the problems with it later."

  • 4
    The meaning of "form follows function" isn't really as you describe. In an engineering context, it means that the form (shape) of a piece of engineering is likely to be dictated by the requirements of its functionality. For example, aeroplanes are shaped the way they are because that is the optimum shape for an object which needs to be able to fly while reducing drag as much as possible. – Steve Melnikoff Mar 6 '13 at 17:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.