Lots of familiar phrases and sayings are a great deal older than they might appear. For instance, it’s been raining cats and dogs since the mid-1600s. People have been as mad as March hares since the 16th century, and have been adding other strings to their bows since the 15th century. And even Geoffrey Chaucer warned that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie in the late 1300s.
But not all of these ancient proverbs and expressions have survived. The 20 listed and explained here—all of which date from the Tudor period, 1485-1603, when a number of early English dictionaries and collections of proverbs were published—have long since dropped out of everyday use in English, but are no less useful or applicable than they once were.
1. ALL CLOUDS BRING NOT RAIN
First recorded in 1584 in A Short Dictionarie in Latine and English by the lexicographer John Withals, the Elizabethan proverb "all clouds bring not rain" implies that not all threats are always fulfilled. Shakespeare alludes to a similar idea in Henry VI, Part 3.
2. BITE AT THE STONE, NOT THE HAND THAT THROWS IT
Essentially a Tudor English equivalent of “don't shoot the messenger,” this saying warns against blaming someone for something they personally had no involvement in.
3. GREEN WOOD MAKES A HOT FIRE
“Green wood” is young, newly-grown wood, which in this 15th century saying—a warning not to waste your youth—is used as a metaphor for youthful vigor and passion. (Actually, green wood won’t make your campfire any hotter, it’ll just produce a lot of smoke…)
4. HE THAT STUMBLES TWICE AT ONE STONE, DESERVES TO BREAK HIS SHINS
In other words, make the same mistake twice, and you’ve only got yourself to blame.
5. HIS HAIR GROWS THROUGH HIS HOOD
In 15th century English, being warned that “your hayre grows through your hood” meant that you were on the road to ruin. The image here is clearly of someone so destitute and desperate for cash that they can’t afford to repair or replace their coat, even now that their hood has begun to wear through.
6. IT IS ILL JESTING WITH EDGED TOOLS
This 16th century saying warns against meddling with things that can harm you, or with things you have no real knowledge or experience of—in this context, ill means “undesirable” or “unwise,” jesting means “playing” or “toying”, and “edged tools” are tools with blades or sharp edges, like saws or knives. The playwright Ben Jonson alluded to a similar idea in his play Every Man Out Of His Humour.
7. IT IS AN ILL WIND THAT BLOWS NOBODY ANY GOOD
In other words, there will always be someone, somewhere, who profits from or delights in a disaster, no matter how bad it may appear be.
8. LABOUR IS LIGHT WHERE LOVE DOTH PAY
The Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton used this 16th century proverb as the basis of a sonnet first published in 1602, in which he argued back and forth with Love using a series of contradictory sayings and expressions. The idea here is that any job or task, no matter how exhausting or unpleasant, becomes effortless when it is done for someone you love.
9. LAWS ARE SPIDERS’ WEBS
Dating back to the late 15th century, if not even earlier, this saying not only alludes to the fact that it is impossible to escape from the law, but to the fact that the larger and more powerful you are, the less likely you are to be caught; the full version is, “the laws are like spiders’ webs—they catch flies, but let hornets go free.”
10. MANY KISS THE CHILD FOR THE NURSE’S SAKE
A warning not to trust everyone, or take everyone at face value—“to kiss the child for the nurse’s sake” is to do what is expected of you, but to have an ulterior motive.
11. MUCH CRY, AND LITTLE WOOL
When non-stop talking and gossiping prevents any work from getting done, then there is “much cry and little wool.” The image behind this late 15th century expression is likely that of wool-spinners or weavers, but it may also refer to sheep-shearers and shepherds talking instead of getting on with their work. Or, it could be a reference to vendors who were shouting loudly (as a town crier would) to sell their wares, but didn't actually have much of value.
12. DON’T SEND THE AXE AFTER THE HELVE
The helve is the handle of an ax, so sending the blade of the ax after it is a proverbial waste of time or resources. This saying likely warned against following up one useless act with another equally useless one, or else borrowing more money to repay a bad debt. Likewise, to put an axe on a helve meant to resolve a difficult situation, while to throw the helve after the hatchet meant to risk everything, or to exhaust every possible opportunity. The old saying that the axe goes to the wood where the helve was made, meanwhile, warns against telling someone how to do something that they could eventually use against you.
13. SING BEFORE BREAKFAST, CRY BEFORE NIGHT
Moods and emotions are transient—whatever you’re feeling now, you won’t be feeling later, so don’t worry.
14. SOON CROOKETH THE TREE THAT A GOOD GAMBREL WOULD BE
Now probably best known as the name of a type of sloping roof, originally a gambrel was a roughly V- or W-shaped piece of timber or iron used by butchers to hang carcasses while they were cut up, matured, or cooled after cooking. Strong trees or branches that could be used to make “a good gambrel” were proverbially hard to come by, and because they could soon become “crooked” due to age or bad weather, this saying ultimately warns against procrastination and advises that it is best to work out early what it is you want to do or become—while simultaneously commenting on how quickly signs of maturity or adulthood appear in children.
15. A STILL DOG BARKS NOT IN VAIN
Dogs are a common subject of old proverbs and expressions, including an old dog still bites sore (a 13th century warning against underestimating someone just because they’re old); as the old dogs bark, so do the young (a comment on how quickly children learn from their elders); and as courteous as a dog in a kitchen (a 14th century metaphor referring to how well a promise of food or some other kind of treat guarantees good behavior). A still dog or an old dog barks not in vain or for nothing is a slightly later expression dating from the mid-1500s, which warns against ignoring advice from reliable or experienced sources.
16. THOSE THAT WALK IN THE SUN WILL BE TANNED AT LAST
Anyone who takes risks will always get their comeuppance.
17. TO A CRABBED KNOT MUST BE SOUGHT A CRABBED WEDGE
A “crabbed knot” is a misshapen knot in a piece of timber, which will require an equally misshapen “crabbed wedge” to fill it—so this expression is essentially a 16th century equivalent of “fight fire with fire”. A similar proverb, knotty timber must have smooth wedges, dates from the late 1600s and advises that difficult people should be treated with respect and diplomacy.
18. WHEN THE TREE IS FALLEN, ALL GO WITH THEIR HATCHET
First recorded in a work by the Elizabethan translator Bartholomew Young, when the tree is fallen, all go with their hatchet is a 16th century expression commenting that only very few people are willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve something great: when a tree needs to be cut down, no one is willing to do the hard work, but after the hard work has been done, everyone turns up to collect timber.
19. WHILE THE GRASS GROWS, THE STEED STARVES
Dating from the mid-15th century, "while the grass grows the steed starves" means that help can often come too late. It’s another old proverb warning against procrastination, and advising not to leave it too late to act.
20. YOUTH AND WHITE PAPER TAKE ANY IMPRESSION
First recorded in 1579, this proverb was likely meant to not only point out the innocence and inexperience of youth, but also to warn against how impressionable and vulnerable young people are—and how quickly they can be led astray.