Common Proverbs & Their Origins

This post is the follow-up to “Proverbs in Everyday Life” published before. Now we are going to focus on the origins of the proverbs we wrote about. We are also going provide proverbs with similar meanings, so read on to expand your vocabulary…

  1. Better late than never: This was long overdue, but better late than never. First recorded in English circa 1330, the proverb is probably of ancient Roman origin. The phrase “but better never late” is sometimes added or said in response to the proverb: I forgot Mary’s birthday! Should I send her a gift anyway? – Sure, better late than never. – But better never late.
  2. Better safe than sorry ∼ it’s better to be on the safe side: We may not use it, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. The proverb was first recorded in 1837, in Samuel Lover’s novel “Rory O’More,” with “sure” in place of “safe.”
  3. All’s fair in love and war: Sure, it was underhanded to steal his customers, but all’s fair in love and warThe proverb was first recorded, with different wording , in 1620. In modern use an extra word is often added to or substituted for part of the proverb, as in “All’s fair in love, war, and politics:” example.
  4. Curiosity killed the cat ∼ ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies: You are too curious, and, as they say, curiosity killed the cat.  The proverb seems to be of comparatively recent origin, having been first recorded in 1909 in Henry, “Schools and Schools.”
  5. It takes two to tango: It takes two to tango, and efforts must be made by all. The proverb was popularized as the title of a song written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning in 1952.
  6. Don’t judge a book by its cover/you can’t tell a book by its cover ∼ the cowl does not make the monk judge not according to appearances: You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we still do that, don’t we? The proverb was first recorded in 1929 in the form “You can’t judge a book by its binding” in the periodical “American Speech.”
  7. Easy come, easy goI lost £500 in a card game last night, but that’s life – easy come, easy go. The proverb was first recorded in this form in 1832, but the sentiment it expresses is of much earlier origin, occurring in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (circa 1390).
  8. A fool and his money are soon parted: As soon as Greg won the big lottery jackpot, he turned around and spent it all at the casino. A fool and his money are soon parted. The proverb was first recorded in this form in 1587 in J.Bridge’s “Defense of Government in Church of England.”
  9. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: It’s fine. Leave it alone. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The proverb was first recorded in 1977, popularized by Bert Lance, director of the Office of Management and Budget in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. 
  10. Like father, like son/as is the father, so is the son ∼ the apple never falls far from the tree ∼ like mother, like daughter: Young Jim is turning out to be as hard-working as his dad – like father, like son. The proverb was first recorded circa 1340 in the form “Ill sons follow ill fathers.”
  11. Blood is thicker than water (but sometimes it runs mighty thin): Can’t you give your sister a job at your company? Blood is thicker than water! The proverb was first recorded in this form in 1813, but the sentiment it expresses is of much earlier origin. Compare the 12th-century German saying “sippeblout von wasere night verdirbet” (“kin-blood is not spoilt by water”).
  12. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the fence) the grass is always greener in somebody else’s backyard: I sometimes think I’d be happier teaching in Spain. Oh well, the grass is always greener on the other side! In its current form the proverb is of relatively recent origin, but the sentiment it expresses dates back to ancient times. Compare Ovid (43B.C.-A.D.18): “fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris” (“the harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s fields”).
  13. God helps those who help themselves: You can’t spend your days waiting for a good job to find you. God helps those that help themselves. The proverb is of ancient origin. It is sometimes used facetiously as a justification for stealing, or in the extended form “God helps those who help themselves, but God help those who are caught helping themselves.”
  14. No pain, no gain  no sweat, no sweet: Learning a foreign language is hard, but no pain, no gain. The proverb was first recorded in 1577 in the form “They must take pain that look for any gain.” The more concise form “No pains, no gains” was used in 1648 as the title of a poem by Robert Herrick. 
  15. Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Of course, it’s dangerous, but, as they say, nothing ventured… The proverb was first recorded in English circa 1385, in Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde,” in the form: “He which that nothing undertaketh,/Nothing n’acheveth.”
  16. Fortune favors the bold/brave: I decided to ask out the most popular girl in school because fortune favors the bold, right? Of ancient origin, the proverb occurs in Virgil’s “Aeneid” (first century B.C.): “audentes fortuna iuvat” (fortune aids the bold”).
  17. When in Rome (do as the Romans do) ∼ so many countries, so many customs: Everyone else seemed to be wearing these hats so I thought, when in Rome, and bought one for myself. The proverb was first recorded circa 1475, but the sentiment it expresses is of much earlier origin, and has been attributed to Saint Ambrose (circa 339-A.D.97). 
  18. Honesty is the best policy ∼ honesty pays ∼ cheaters never prosper: Should I tell the truth? – Of course, honesty is the best policy. The proverb was first recorded in 1605. In his “Apophthegms” (1854), the English politician, philosopher and theologian Richard Whately wrote, “Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by this maxim is not an honest man.”
  19. Actions speak louder than wordsYou said you’d help me, but you know what they say: actions speak louder than words! The first recorded use of the proverb, in the form “actions are more precious than words,” was in a speech by the English politician John Gym in 1628. Its current form is of U.S. origin.
  20. A leopard can’t change its spots ∼ once a thief, always a thief: After our breakup, he came crawling back, trying to convince me that he’d changed, but I know that a leopard can’t change its spots. The proverb is of biblical origin: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23)
  21. Once bitten, twice shy a burnt child dreads the fire: I‘ve learned my lesson from dating actors – once bitten, twice shy. The proverb was first recorded in this form in 1894.
  22. Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it don’t meet troubles halfway ∼ take things as they come: I’m so worried! They might reject me. – Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it. The proverb was first recorded in 1850, in the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Journal,” and reappeared the following year in his poem “The Golden Legend.”
  23. It’s not over till it’s over ∼ the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings: It’s not looking likely that the senator will be elected to another term, but it ain’t over until it’s over. The proverb is attributed to the baseball player Yogi Berra, referring to a baseball game.
  24. Beauty is in the eye of the beholderYou may not like my new jacket, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The proverb was first recorded in this form in the late 18th century, but the sentiment it expresses is of much earlier origin. Compare Theocritus (circa 308-circa 240B.C.), “in the eyes of love that which is not beautiful often seems beautiful.”
  25. We must learn to walk before we can run ∼ you have to learn to crawl before you can walkDon’t get ahead of yourself. You have to walk before you can runThe proverb was first recorded, with different wording, circa 1350. Early examples of its use had “creep” and “go” in place of “walk” and “run.”

Source: “The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs” by Martin H.Manser

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