Before the internet, we couldn’t use memes to express ourselves. Instead, we used proverbs: catchy lines that aim to encapsulate universal truths. Some were introduced to the world by witty writers, and some seemed to emerge fully formed into the collective conscious. Many of them are still with us, but many more have fallen out of use over the centuries.
The oft-repeated nature of proverbs makes it tough to nail down a definitive origin for some of them, and it also means it’s pretty common for there to be multiple variations of a given phrase. In short, the sources below are all great historical examples of their associated proverbs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they originated the expressions. Whatever the case, it’s fun to try to work them into as many modern-day conversations as you can.
1. “As like as an apple to an oyster.”
Source: Thomas More, 1533
If you’ve ever been annoyed that apples and oranges actually are quite similar, this 16th-century phrase uses something very non-apple-y.
2. “Children are certain cares, but uncertain comforts.”
You can bet you’re gonna have to change their diapers, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stick around to change yours. (Alternately, some take this to mean parenthood is extremely stressful.)
3. “Where cobwebs are plenty, kisses are scarce.”
Source: Notes and Queries, 1864
Dirty houses are not sexy.
4. “He who would pun would pick a pocket.”
Source: Benjamin Victor (quoting John Dennis), 1722
If you’re of such low character that the best jokes you can come up with are throwbacks from The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, there is nothing you won’t stoop to.
5. “A friend to all is a friend to none.”
Source: John Wodroephe, 1623
This is why politicians are so widely disliked: In morphing to please so many types of people, they often appear dishonest and false.
6. “Garlic makes a man wink, drink, and stink.”
Source: Thomas Nashe, 1594
Garlic apparently inflames your lust, lures you to drunkenness, and makes your entire body smell like over-seasoned meat.
7. “Bachelors’ wives and maids’ children are well taught.”
Source: John Heywood, 1546
When you don’t have a spouse or a kid, you know everything about maintaining a healthy relationship with spouses and kids.
8. “We are born crying, live complaining, and die disappointed.”
Source: Thomas Fuller, 1732
You know all too well what this means.
9. “Gluttony kills more than the sword.”
Source: The Dialogues of Creatures Moralised, 1535
Even in 1535, overeating was still hardening arteries, enlarging hearts, and filling graveyards.
10. “You should know a man seven years before you stir his fire.”
Source: Charles Dibdin, 1803
Whether it’s a friend or significant other, you should make sure you know the person before you feel too at home at their place.
11. “The substance of a lady’s letter, it has been said, always is comprised in the postscript.”
Source: Maria Edgeworth, 1801
Just because the ‘P.S.’ comes after the sign-off doesn't mean it's an afterthought—in fact, it’s often the opposite.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2023.