Sayings, proverbs, adages, aphorisms…whatever you call them, they’re pretty much the same thing:
Bite-size phrases that capture a sliver of wisdom or profound truth about life.
- “Haste makes waste”
- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
- “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”
From the time we’re old enough to speak, we’re bombarded with them. But do they have any real value?
In the 2001 French movie Amelie, there’s a great scene where Amelie’s love interest—a handsome and charming French dude (naturally)—is being vetted by Amelie’s best friend.
The friend likes the would-be suitor and wants to give her blessing on the relationship. But she’s troubled that she doesn’t have a better sense of the man’s character.
On a whim, she starts quizzing him. She blurts out, “One swallow doesn’t make…?”
At first he’s confused, then he realizes what she’s doing. “A summer?” he replies tentatively.
“Practice makes…?” she asks.
“Perfect.” he answers.
And so on.
In the movie it seems slightly ridiculous. But it made me think: is there some truth to that?
Is it a sign of good character to be familiar classic sayings? Or at least an indication that you’ll make wiser choices in life?
On some level, I think the answer is yes.
With that in mind, here are 36 classic proverbs, adages and aphorisms that I think are worth learning. Many of these are self-explanatory, but others require more context to appreciate.
Adages, Proverbs and Aphorisms Every Man Should Learn
1. A rolling stone gathers no moss – A reference to the way that rocks are overgrown by moss and lichen when they stay in one spot. On one hand this adage suggests that a person who never settles down and keeps moving won’t be encumbered by the weight of responsibility. On the flip site, it can also be used to suggest that a person who never puts down roots won’t reap the benefits of long-term relationships or belonging to a community.
2. A watched pot never boils
3. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – This was an adage that always confused me, so I was excited to finally look up the meaning. Apparently, the way to tell a horse’s age is by looking at its teeth. The saying literally means that if someone gives you a horse, it’s rude to look in its mouth to check how old it is—that’s like looking for the price tag on a gift. This maxim reminds us that when someone does something nice for us, we should simply be grateful rather than trying to evaluate its value.
4. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones
5. Jack of all trades, master of none – The beginning of this saying (Jack of all trades) is often used as a complement for someone who is good at many things. But by adding “master of none,” the meaning changes to suggest a person who dabbles in many things is rarely great at any one thing. Interestingly, the meaning flips back to positive when you look at the original full proverb: “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.”
6. Necessity is the mother of invention
7. A stitch in time saves nine – A reference to the fact that by quickly sewing up a small tear in a garment, you can avoid a small tear becoming a much larger tear over time. This reminds us that the earlier we deal with problems, the more we can contain the potential negative effects.
8. Don’t cross the bridge ’til you come to it
9. Every dog has his day – One of the earliest references to this adage is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew and dog will have his day.” In that context, it meant that even people with supernatural abilities (like Hercules) can’t keep nature from acting like nature. Similar to Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote, the phrase now means that no matter how insignificant a person or creature, each one will have its moment of greatness at some point in life.
10. The squeaky wheel gets the grease
11. Discretion is the better part of valor – This maxim reminds us that being wise and avoiding unnecessary risks is better than impulsive, rash bravery. Ironically, the phrase originally appeared as a joke in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. One of the characters, Falstaff, pretends to be dead on the battlefield and uses the phrase to rationalize his cowardly behavior.
12. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
13. Too many cooks spoil the broth – This is the original version of the more common “too many cooks in the kitchen” phrase. Naturally, the reference is to the fact that if multiple cooks are “tweaking” a recipe, the dish is going to suffer because there are too many competing tastes and visions. This is a great reminder that a bigger team is not always better, and that decision-by-committee can often result in a suboptimal outcome.
14. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
15. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
16. A bird in hand is better than two in the bush – A hunting reference that points out that when you’ve already caught one bird, it may not be worth risking in order to capture the other birds that are still hiding in the brush. This saying cautions us from taking unnecessary risks, and to weigh the value of what we have versus what we hope to gain.
17. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
18. Two is company, three is a crowd
19. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread – This adage was first used by English poet Alexander Pope in his poem, “An Essay on Criticism” in 1711, which is also the origin of the adage “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” The “fools rush in” phrase (which Elvis referenced in his famous song) refers to the way that people with less experience and wisdom hastily try to attempt things that people with greater skill and judgement would avoid.
20. The last straw breaks the camel’s back
21. Penny wise, pound foolish
22. Birds of a feather flock together – If you’ve ever watched birds in the sky, you know that they often fly together in groups. This adage is used to describe how people of similar attitudes, interests and beliefs often congregate together. This can sometimes to be used to point out negative characteristics of people.
23. When in Rome, do as the Romans do
24. No man is an island
25. Strike while the iron is hot – A reference to blacksmithing, where you need to hit a hot piece of metal with a mallet before it cools in order to change its shape. The saying reminds us to act quickly when opportunities arise before we miss our chance.
26. Cleanliness is next to godliness
27. Waste not, want not
28. The pot calling the kettle black – The first reference to this idiom appeared in the Spanish novel Don Quixote. The expression refers to a pot criticizing a kettle for being black from soot, which is ridiculous since they are both dirtied by the same cooking fire. The saying is used to call out a person who criticizes someone for an issue that they themselves are guilty of as well. “Really, Peter? You That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”
29. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know
30. Barking dogs seldom bite
31. The proof is in the pudding – This is actually a modification of the original proverb, which said “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” At the time (the 1600’s) pudding was a savory dish made with sausage. The proverb is meant to remind us that you can only judge if something is a success once you’ve tested it out in real life.
32. Actions speak louder than words
33. Man cannot live by bread alone
34. Make hay while the sun shines – This phrase literally referred the challenges that medieval English farmers faced when trying to harvest hay; at the time it took several days to harvest, and bad weather could hamper their efforts. So they would plan to make as much hay as possible when the weather was good. The saying reminds us seize the opportunity to take action when the moment is right and conditions are favorable.
35. Let sleeping dogs lie
36. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater
It’s tempting to dismiss old sayings like these because they sound trite and overly simplistic. And yes, many of them are contrived, like “A stitch in time saves nine.” Clearly it was just convenient to say “nine” since it rhymed with “time.”
While sometimes they just sound like bad poetry, that’s because they are purposefully designed to be easy to remember. They are also designed to deliver the essence of a profound truth in as few words as possible.
The more time you spend with these kinds of proverbs, the more they become part of you. And often, like inspiring quotes from great men, these little capsules of wisdom will bubble up to your consciousness precisely when you need their guidance most.
What other sayings would you add to this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.