Origins & Meanings of Proverbs

People have often written in requesting the meaning and/or origin of a proverb, adage or saying. Therefore I have commenced recording the items that have been the subject of questions. There is far too much work to go through and write meanings to all of the proverbs listed on the Save the Proverbs page, and many of you will know the meaning of most proverbs.

From many of the questions I receive I rather imagine the sender has grown up in a city or else they would have known the meaning. So many of the proverbs, adages and sayings have a rural background. You will also notice that many of the proverbs referring to weather  not only have application in farming but also in a marine situation.

To further understand the origin of proverbs it is suggested that you read the history page on our site.

I had only heard a small portion of the proverbs when I commenced the page, but I have no trouble in understanding the meaning of them. This may be because I grew up in a farming community.

We should not blindly hold on to any specific proverb. For different situations different proverb / sayings hold good. We should think clearly and see which one applies to the situation, as each proverb is for a certain type of situation.

If you have a question please email me and I will answer your question direct by email plus include the answer in this list.

Meanings and Origins of Proverbs and Adages

If you don't locate your answer here try the Contradictions section it may assist you to understand your problem saying.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth
It is a gift. Be grateful for it, whatever it is.
Shake the hand before you plough the field
Arrange the payment conditions before doing the work.
Out of sight, out of mind.
If we put something into storage we may often forget about it. It likewise can mean if a person leaves our immediate vicinity to live elsewhere they maybe forgotten. Applies to a situation where you have done the wrong thing and wish other people to forget about it. Lay low (say little) and hope that they will forget the error of your ways.
Variety is the spice of life.
Life would be dull if we only had one or two activities. A wide range of activities provides a full enjoyable life (spice). Reverse - Don't change horses in midstream. Here is the rural background again.
Practice makes perfect.
A very factual statement. Can be seen in apprenticeships and all training. It applies from the day we start learning to walk as a child. Reverse saying - You're never too old to learn - and - All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
A stitch in time saves nine
Repair something before the damage gets worse. Perhaps there are nautical-themed proverbs, so many naval words and phrases are found in English. This could relate to a sail maker repairing sails rather than a tailor repairing clothes.
Two heads are better than one.
Indicates that two people can more easily find a solution to a problem than one person alone. Similar to the saying "Many hands make light work". Both meaning several people working together provide more hands (or heads, brains or minds) to lift a heavy weight (solve a problem). Reverse - Too many cooks spoil the broth.
You can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Here is the rural background again. A person who has developed a certain way of ploughing a field with a horse and plough is difficult to teach how to use a tractor. Can apply to any situation where you are trying to re-train people. In actual fact people can be re-trained but it is more difficult to re-train a person than someone coming to a job with no previous experience. Reverse - You're never too old to learn.
Blood is thicker than water.
Highlight the old traditional family environment. Family (blood) are more important than anything else.
Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread
This proverb relates to decision making. When considering an action be sure to consider all angles before making the final decision. A hasty foolish or bad action can land you in a modern day 'Hell" where further consideration would have had you take another course. The assumption is that there are no angels in Hell. Another proverb in support of this is "Look before you leap".
Many proverbs have an opposite in this case a contradiction is "He who hesitates is lost."
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
Comes from the days when people worked six and a half or seven days a week. It acknowledges that all work makes a person uninteresting. Hence the modern emphasis on "networking" expanding your contacts even if they are involved in your industry.
Good things come to those who wait.
Don't rush into anything, think it through and wait until the time is right before you act. Reverse - Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
The more you stir, the more it stinks
Could originate from the sewerage disposal systems or lack of them, with out-door toilets and the need to empty the can in the old days. Means that if several times you hear of some misbehaviour by a person, if further investigated other worse happenings may be uncovered. Similar - Where there's smoke there's fire.
All's well that ends well
An event has had a satisfactory outcome even though at the start the result looked as if it may be unsatisfactory.
A month of Sundays
Means a long period of time. A month is say 30 days, therefore 30 Sundays each seven days from the previous would be 210 days, which is a long time. It does not mean 210 days it just is a way of saying this is a long time. Use:- "He will take a month of Sundays to build that shed".
On the wallaby
It refers to the swagmen of olden days who tramped around Australia looking for work. Perhaps it was because they just moved (a wallaby is a small kangaroo, they jump) from town to town looking for work.
All's fair in love and war
The "All is fair" phrase means that all and any actions are fair (reasonable). No rules apply. The "In love and war" phrase is a short description of life and the world we live in. As one person stated it "The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war". The saying "Alls fair in love and war" is usually used in a light hearted way to describe some action that is a little unusual for the circumstances in which it took place.
There's no use in flogging (beating)a dead horse.
If a horse is dead there is no point in expecting it to do any work for you, either allowing you to ride it or pull a plough. Therefore there is no point in beating it with a stick to make it move, as it is dead. This can then be applied to any project that is obviously not going to succeed. The project is considered dead so don't continue to work on it.
A pig in a poke
Means buying an unknown. The bag relative to the "cat's out of the bag" (see above) was called a "poke." If you purchased a pig without looking in the bag you purchased a "pig in a poke".
Getting out of the wrong side of bed.
This saying tries to explain why a person is in a bad mood today. It is usually expressed as " Did you get out off the wrong side of the bed today". Probably comes from the days when in a large family several children had to share the one bed. No separate bedroom for each child in those days. Climbing over other siblings to get out of bed would start an argument.
Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him.
If a person is lazy and does not work they will not accumulate wealth.
By hook or by crook
A hook was a bent rod with a sharp point used to assist the user to hold and move a bag or bundle. A crook was the long (two metre) walking stick with a hook on the end traditionally used by shepherds. By hook or by crook meant that by the use of these two tools the job would be completed.
Cut your coat according to your cloth
This saying refers to a tailor who cuts cloth to make a garment (coat). It means that you can only make a product as good as the material you are making it from. Can be applied to projects as well as products.
Nothing falls into the mouth of a sleeping fox
The rural background again. The fox needs to be awake to catch his food. A person needs to be awake (on the ball) to succeed in life. A second saying with the same meaning is 'The sleeping fox catches no chickens".
For donkeys' ages
Meaning for a very long time.
Since before cocky was an egg
Meaning for a very long time.
Old is gold.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Old Is Gold. Meaning that the old (previous) way is the best.
Big fish, little sea
If you are a clerk in a multi-national company with thousands of employees you are a little fish in a big sea.
If you are the accountant for a small company that only trades in one town and has about about 20 employees you are then a big fish in a little sea.
That let the cat out of the bag.
To pass along a secret. In medieval England, piglets were sold in the open marketplace. The seller usually kept the pig in a bag, so it would be easier for the buyer to take it home. But shady sellers often tried to trick their buyers by putting a large cat in the bag. If a shrewd shopper looked in the bag - then the cat was out of the bag.
A problem shared is a problem halved.
Discuss your problems with someone and then there are two of you considering a possible solution.
A man of straw needs a woman of gold.
Think of "straw" as weak and "gold" as strong. Straw is what was left after a farmer cut his wheat or oats crop and took all of the seeds out of it. It was used as bedding for animals. As usual old sayings relate back to when farming was the main occupation of the people.
Pinch and a punch for the first of the month.
This saying was referred to me on the 1st July 2014.
Google provided:-
1. Is it possible that a pinch of snuff and a cup of punch as the traditional offerings of the gentry to casual callers over the Christmas season might be finished off on New Year's morning with this saying as a warning to those over-staying their welcome.
2. From old England times when people thought that witches existed. People thought that salt would make a witch weak, so the pinch part is pinching of the salt, and the punch part was to banish the witch. The witch would be weak from the salt so the punch was to banish her.
3. The modern interpretation is that it is said the first day of a new month, accompanied by a pinch and a punch to the victim.
Cut your coat according to the cloth.
Only try to do things of which you are capable
Empty vessels make the most noise.
People who talk a lot are not always correct.
Experience is the teacher of fools.
Even fools learn by their experiences. See also
'Experience is the father of wisdom.' plus
'Experience is the best teacher.' and
'Experience is the hardest teacher. She gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.'
No hill is so steep but an ass loaded with gold can climb it.
In this case an ass refers to a rich foolish person. Money can be used to reach the highest places.
Fine feathers make fine birds.
Beautiful clothes do not make a king. The person may look like a king but they may not have the knowledge or experience. As Aesop's Fables state "Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool".
Fire is a good servant but a bad master.
Fire must be used wisely.
Great minds think alike.
Thoughtful people tend to come up with similar abswers.
Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
Spread your risks. Don't invest all of your money with one bank.
Penney wise pound foolish.
Refers to a person who worries about saving every small amout of money that they can, but may go and spend many pounds without thinking about the real cost.
Many a mickle makes a muckle
Small amounts of money accumulate into bigger amounts.