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The History of Our Favorite Sayings and Proverbs

Updated on May 4, 2016
The history and meaning of old proverbs and sayings.  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_First_Steps_1889.jpg
The history and meaning of old proverbs and sayings. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_First_Steps_1889.jpg | Source

Many times we hear old sayings and phrases and we kind of know what they mean and we kind of don't.

Because many of the adages are centuries old, some of the original references can be lost.

These types of phrases can be especially confusing for a person trying to learn a new language as the subtleties in text and meaning may be hard to grasp.

Here are some common proverbs, what we know about their origins, and what they most likely mean.

A Stitch In Time Saves Nine

This is a great adage to start off our investigation. If someone says this, they mean that taking care of a problem now, while it's small, is actually better than waiting until the problem is bigger.

The saying probably comes from the act of sewing. In clothing, a small tear can become a bigger tear (requiring more work and attention) so taking the time to fix a small issue will save time and effort later. So it's one stitch with a sewing needle vs. nine stitches!

According to The Phrase Finder, this saying has been around for centuries and was first published in the 1700's (meaning that the phrase was likely around a lot longer than that in oral tradition).

So the next time you're thinking about putting off a small problem, ask yourself if doing something now might save you more work down the road.

What does "a stitch in time saves nine" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Merrow_rolled_blanket_stitch.jpeg
What does "a stitch in time saves nine" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Merrow_rolled_blanket_stitch.jpeg | Source

A Penny Saved Is A Penny Earned

Many of our old adages can trace their roots back to the eccentric founding father, Benjamin Franklin. And this phrase may have its roots in Franklin's thrifty beliefs as well. However there are instances of variations on this phrase that go back even further than Franklin's time.

The idea is that, if there is a temptation to spend your money, but you don't, you're really twice as well off as you were. You're not down the amount you would have spent and you've still got that money. Basically, it's saying that saving your money is it's own type of reward.

While a penny may not buy much these days, the principles of being thrifty and careful with your money never really go out of style.

What does "a penny saved is a penny earned" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Penny_cents_copper_Lincoln_coin_macro.jpg
What does "a penny saved is a penny earned" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Penny_cents_copper_Lincoln_coin_macro.jpg | Source

Don't Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch

This adage warns us about planning on something that we don't actually have yet. Things can always go wrong and what we think will happen, never does.

The phrase likely refers to farming and a nice nest full of chicken eggs. But as any chicken farmer can tell you, you don't actually know if those eggs that your hen is sitting on are viable until they hatch. (Most of the eggs we consume are unfertilized eggs.)

So you don't really know how many baby chicks you're going to get until they are hatched and out and about.

This phrase likely comes from Aesop in a fable called "The Milkmaid and Her Pail." In the fable a milkmaid is going to town to sell her pail of milk. She makes plans with the money that she will get from selling it. She decides she'll buy some chickens. She believes that the chickens will lay eggs and she will then sell eggs to the parson's wife. She decides she will then buy a new hat and dress to make all the young men admire her.

As she is thinking about this she tosses her head back vainly and the milk pail, which she was balancing on her head, spills. Her mother then tells her not to count her chickens before they are hatched.

What does "don't count your chickens before they hatch" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chickens.jpg
What does "don't count your chickens before they hatch" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chickens.jpg | Source

Don't Put The Cart Before The Horse

This old saying simply means that there is a logical order when doing most tasks. When we do these out of order, we may end up causing more work for ourselves.

According to The Phrase Finder, this old saying may date back to Cicero, talking about doing things too late or out of order.

The idea is to not only do things in logical order but to also be pre-emptive. Lock the door before someone breaks in. Do your chores before your parents get angry with you.

In a fast-paced world of instant gratification, this is a good one to remember.

What does "don't put the cart before the horse' mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHorse_and_Cart_(8400829951).jpg
What does "don't put the cart before the horse' mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHorse_and_Cart_(8400829951).jpg | Source

A Bird In Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush

This saying is super old and versions of it can be found back as far as the 6th Century B.C. in Proverbs of Ahiqar:

The idea here is that it may be better to stick with what you have, that which is a sure thing, rather than to go for something that may be better but also may not be attainable.

If you have a bird but you see two more, you would have to let go of the bird in hand to try to capture the two in the bush. In thinking about risks vs. rewards, sometimes it's better to stick with the less risky and sure thing rather than go for something else and end up with nothing.

This might have been some advice the Wall Street bankers needed before the 2008 economic collapse!

What does "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush" mean? Source: By Steve Ryan from Groveland, CA, USA (Bird in Hand) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What does "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush" mean? Source: By Steve Ryan from Groveland, CA, USA (Bird in Hand) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Don't Throw The Baby Out With the Bathwater

According to Snopes.com, the origin of this saying is found in 16th century Germany.

The adage is not meant to be taken literally but is rather advice to slow down and not to panic since that is the best way to make an error. In your haste to get rid of something dirty (the old bathwater) you may get rid of something you also want to keep (the baby).

If you are in a situation where something needs to be changed or gotten rid of, take the time to think through your actions, weighing the pro's and con's before discarding it and making sure that the action doesn't also take away what you value.

What does it mean to "not throw the baby out with the bath water?"  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sister_Margaret_Dyer_baths_a_newborn_baby_at_Southmead_Hospital_in_Bristol,_1942._D10453.jpg
What does it mean to "not throw the baby out with the bath water?" Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sister_Margaret_Dyer_baths_a_newborn_baby_at_Southmead_Hospital_in_Bristol,_1942._D10453.jpg | Source

Those Who Live In Glass Houses Should Not Throw Stones

According to Origins of Sayings, this phrase can be traced back to Chaucer.

The idea is that those people that are vulnerable to attack themselves should not attack others because their secrets will likely be exposed as well.

If you think about it, living in a glass house means that everyone can see what usually is meant to be private.

So if those whose indiscretions are public, go around degrading others, it's likely their own dark secrets will be revealed.

This reminds me of another saying: even a fish wouldn't get in trouble if he kept his mouth shut!

What does "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristiania%2C_glass_house%2C_august_2007.jpg
What does "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChristiania%2C_glass_house%2C_august_2007.jpg | Source

A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

This saying may have it's roots in either Syrus or Erasmus. It can be traced back to early Latin roots.

The idea behind this is that if you are always on the move, you avoid responsibility, ownership and blame. Nothing can cling to you (including people) because you don't stay around long enough for anything to develop.

While this can have negative connotations (for example a dating partner that never wants to commit), it may also be a way to avoid bad situations or getting caught up with people or circumstances that will weigh you down.

What does "a rolling stone gathers no moss" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moss_covered_stone_wall,_Ubley_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671489.jpg
What does "a rolling stone gathers no moss" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moss_covered_stone_wall,_Ubley_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1671489.jpg | Source

An Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, this saying most likely comes from a similar 16th century German saying.

It basically means that people don't usually stray far from their origins, that kids are often influenced by and like the parents that raised them. If the parents are bad, the kids will be bad.

Since the apple is the "child" of the apple tree, it may leave the tree but it only drops to the ground near the tree, keeping the influence and similarity of its parent tree.

While this saying seems to have a lot of negative connotations it could also be used in praise--for example when a child shows intelligence or promise much like a successful parent.

What does "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" mean?  Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beautiful_red_apple.jpg
What does "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" mean? Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beautiful_red_apple.jpg | Source

What Is Your Favorite Adage, Saying, or Idiom?

These are just a few of the many adages and idioms that are in common use in the English language.

Leave a comment with your favorite adage or idiom below and I may add it to the list!

Comments

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    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Whenever my ESL students in the Middle East got bored, I'd throw in an exercise on American idioms. It was fun and 9 times out o 10, they'd find they had a similar expression in Arabic. I could usually explain what the idiom meant, but rarely knew its origin. Thanks for the lesson!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 

      3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I'm also fascinated by language, word-play, idioms, clichés grammar. Very well done. Voted up.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 years ago from Central Florida

      This is interesting, LC. I have two more for you: 1) leave no stone unturned, and one my mother used to always say to me, 2) you'd argue with a signboard if you painted it yourself!

      You should consider a series on this. It's always interesting to learn the origins and meanings. Oftentimes, the interpretations are different for each reader. For instance, to me "a rolling stone gathers no moss" means if you're always on the move, exercising your brain, learning new skills, you won't stagnate.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I've always been fascinated by sayings and idioms like these. I recently was able to use "a stitch in time saves nine" as a sermon illustration. But when you're trying to lean another language sayings like that really trip you up - they don't mean what they say!

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