10 proverbial and popular sayings and their origins

Published on November 18, 2023

Credit: arianka ibarra

Ever wondered why exactly absence makes the heart grow fonder , or how an honest profession like being a hatter became associated with mental instability? Stay to learn more about the gems hidden in plain sight - in everyday talk.

Most of us make use of sayings or proverbs that are older than our grandmothers without thinking twice about it. The appeal of these ready-made phrases probably lies in the fact that they allow people to convey complex meanings or ideas quickly, without verbosity, and through ingenious metaphors that still hold to this day.

But, how exactly do these phrases become so ingrained into our language that we can’t talk without resorting to them? Join us to explore some of the most popular sayings and learn about their historic origins.


A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

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This seems intuitive and is normally interpreted as a hunter’s parable - better to catch one bird than miss many. But this medieval proverb actually comes from the sport of falconry and ‘the bird in the hand’ refers to the preying falcon. And clearly, without it, you won’t be able to catch any more birds, no matter how many reside in the proverbial ‘bush’.


Absence makes the heart grow fonder

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This is a sweet metaphor about the workings of the human heart, with origins in the writings of Roman poet Sextus Propertius. Admittedly, the original phrase is a bit different - ‘Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows’ - but the meaning is intact.


An apple a day keeps the doctor away

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Akin to a nursery rhyme, the earliest recording of this healthy advice in 1866 says ‘Eat an apple on going to bed, And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread’. As with many other of these popular sayings, time transformed the words , although the original meaning is still there.


Mad as a hatter

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Why would a hatter be mad, one could think. But there’s some historical veracity to this one, since 19th-century hatters used the poisonous metal mercury in the making of hats.

A life’s worth of exposure to this element caused damage to the nervous systems of most hatters, causing them constant tremors that made them appear insane. Still to this day, mercury poisoning is known as the ‘Mad Hatter’s disease’.


Resting on laurels

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Today this saying has mostly a negative connotation, used for those who are overly satisfied with their past achievements - while neglecting the present. But the idea originates, as so many, in ancient Greece.

Leaders and victorious athletes of antiquity were usually depicted among crowns of laurel leaves - a symbol connected to Apollo, one of the most important gods in the Greek pantheon. The plant eventually became associated with victory, status, and important achievements , and even Romans adopted the practice of presenting wreaths made of laurel branches to victorious generals.


A chain is only as strong as its weakest link

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A powerful reminder of how even the largest things rest upon their smallest - and weakest - parts, this popular bit of wisdom was first recorded in 1786, in Thomas Reid’s ‘Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man.’

Coincidentally, there’s a similar proverb of Basque origin ‘Haria meheenean eten ohi da’ - that means ‘A thread usually breaks where it is thinnest’.


A rolling stone gathers no moss

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Many artists, like Bob Dylan and - obviously - The Rolling Stones, paid their respects to this ancient proverb about the advantages of not settling anywhere and just going wherever the wind takes you. While the actual origin of the phrase is somewhat disputed among scholars, most agree that it originated in Roman times, but was greatly popularized by Erasmus of Rotterdam around the year 1500.


Blood is thicker than water

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A phrase that could fit well in the mouth of a Godfather-esque character, this medieval proverb simply means that family bonds will always come over the bonds of friendship or love . The oldest record of this proverb is in German and goes back to the 12th century.

Recently, there has been some speculation that the original meaning of the proverb referred not to family bonds but to bonds made in battle - between fellow warriors - but some claim there’s not enough evidence to back this interpretation.


When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

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A very popular motivational proverb - and with good reason! - that encourages us to keep striving through the sourness or difficulties of life (represented by the lemons) and make the most of it.

The phrase was first coined by American writer Elbert Hubbard in a 1915 obituary for a friend, where he praised his optimistic attitude in life: ‘He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade stand.’


All's well that ends well

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We reach the end of our little list with another classic saying, inspired by the title of a Shakespeare comedic play of the late 1500s. The main idea behind this one is that a happy ending can make up for everything that has happened before, a golden rule that many Hollywood screenwriters have taken to heart – perhaps even too much.

But who can hate a happy ending? Well, if you are yet not ready to put an end to your curiosity, don’t worry! We will continue exploring fun and interesting facts about language and the history behind many words and sayings we take for granted.