In every language, there are proverbs or common sayings that speakers use to impart truthful principles or give valid advice. Each proverb is usually based on an experience or a bit of common sense mixed with metaphorical language.
Obviously, these common English sayings are understood by most native speakers. But for everybody else, they can be puzzling or confusing, especially if you don’t hear them often. Learning the origins of English proverbs can help you better understand the different layers of meaning within them.
In this article, we will define and dissect some common English sayings (also known as English proverbs) and provide both origin and examples for context.
Actions speak louder than words.
Meaning: Though the proverb is metaphorical, this is one of the most straightforward sayings we use in English. It means the things you do have more meaning than the words you speak.
Use: You’ll hear this proverb when there is a lot of talk around a subject, but no one seems to do anything. Politicians and athletes often use the phrase to taunt an opponent. It’s one of the great moral proverbs for students of all ages.
Candidate One: If I’m elected, I plan to work to balance our budget and stop needless spending.
Candidate Two: Well, actions speak louder than words. My opponent seems to forget that when he was a representative, he went over his budget for three consecutive years.
Origin: There are some earlier versions of the proverb that use similar language, but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln made the most well-known use when, in 1856, he wrote: ‘Actions speak louder than words’ is the maxim.’
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Meaning: This proverb makes an obvious statement to imply that the weakest element of a group will weaken the entire group. If you have a chain with a weak link, it will detach or break.
Use: People use this often when referring to a team of individuals. You could hear this in the business world (especially in sales) when managers speak about team building. Coaches of team sports also use this saying.
Sales manager to team: Okay everyone, we need to support each other this quarter to maximize our sales goals. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you see someone who needs help, try to help them out.
Origin: The quote appeared in Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man by Thomas Reid; published in 1786.
A fool and his money are soon parted.
Meaning: The proverb implies that foolish people are not smart with their finances. They’ll spend on things that have no value when they have money and will soon have nothing.
Use: Growing up in America, I heard this saying a lot as a child when elders spoke to me about finances. It was a way of teaching young people to be smart with financial matters. You may also hear this as an afterthought when people talk about someone who becomes bankrupt.
Karen: Did you hear about that guy in Texas who won the lottery, but was broke again within a year?
Alice: Well, a fool and his money are soon parted.
Origin: The essence of the proverb came from the Book of Proverbs in the King James version of The Bible. Chapter 21, Verse 20 states, “There is treasure to be desired and oil in the dwelling of the wise; but a foolish man spendeth it up.”
However, the original use in its exact wording came from Dr. John Bridge’s book The Defence of the Government of the Church of England; published in 1587.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Meaning: No matter how big a task is, it will always begin with one simple action.
Use: People say this often to others who face or are intimidated by a big job or task. They mean it as a statement of encouragement. It’s one of the most useful proverbs for students. When you started your journey to learn English, someone probably could have said this English proverb to you (maybe they did!).
Joey: Oh wow. I don’t know how I will get all this homework done. It will take forever.
Joey’s Dad: Well, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Just start on the first problem and go from there.
Origin: This is a proverb of Chinese origin that English speakers borrowed for their own usage. It comes from Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Meaning: When someone or people you love are away, you’ll love them even more. Or, missing someone will make you desire them even more.
Use: People say this to individuals when their spouse or significant other has to go away for a while. Family members of individuals associated with the military hear this proverb a lot when their loved one is deployed far away. Also, it can be used regarding a loved one who has died. The proverb is meant to be comforting.
Joan: He’s been gone for 6 months, and I just miss him so much.
Jan: Just remember, absence makes the heart grow fonder. He’ll be back soon, and you’ll be overjoyed.
Origin: Though the saying has origins in ancient Roman poetry, the exact wording of the proverb comes from The Pocket Magazine of Classic and Polite Literature by an author known as Miss Strickland. It was published in 1832.
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Meaning: It means you shouldn’t do something morally wrong to someone who has wronged you in some way. It implies that, ultimately, the action will only make the situation worse, and you won’t feel better. Also, it doesn’t erase or correct the original act of wrongdoing.
Use: Often, individuals use this to persuade someone to not take revenge on another person. It’s meant to make someone stop and think about things before they take action. This is one of the more common proverbs for children.
Parent to a child: Just because he/she took your ball doesn’t mean you should take his/her ball. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Origin: The exact origin of the saying is unknown, but it’s ancient. The first notable American use dates back to a letter written in 1783 by Benjamin Rush. He was a civic leader and signer of The Declaration of Independence.
Beggars can’t be choosers.
Meaning: Individuals who are relying on the charity of others can’t choose only things they prefer or like. They have to take what they are given.
Use: Parents like to say this a lot to children asking for a little too much. Though, you may hear it regarding lower income individuals who are asking for more benefits. Be sure you fully understand the context before saying this proverb as it could be taken with offense in the wrong situation.
Child: But Mom, I want a teddy bear AND a truck.
Mom: Tommy, beggars can’t be choosers. You have to choose either a teddy bear or a truck.
Origin: The proverb dates back to 1562 and was published in John Heywood’s A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. However, it was probably a well-known proverb before it was published.
The pen is mightier than the sword.
Meaning: Words are often more powerful than violence when accomplishing a goal.
Use: People use this proverb when they want to say that talking or writing is more powerful than physical acts when someone is trying to accomplish a political goal. It can also be used when referring to a free press within a country as a strong means of conveying a message.
Joe: I really think that we should just send some troops over there to take care of things.
John: Well, don’t forget, the pen is mightier than the sword. Perhaps we should send more letters and speak to them before we escalate things to violence.
Origin: There are many versions of the proverb throughout history that date all the way back to Ancient Greece and Assyria. However, modern usage is traced back to English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1839 play Richelieu.
We hope these eight English proverbs are enough to get started in your study of common English sayings! Do you know any more or know one from your native language? Leave them in the comments below with their meaning!
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