Words of Wisdom: 100 well-known sayings


Many well-known sayings and aphorisms have been around for much longer than we think.

Here are nearly 100 examples. Some have been in use for well over 2,000 years.

Where a source is named in this list, the saying might have been coined by that writer, or it might already have been in use at the time. In some cases, a present-day saying is an adaptation of the original version.

The Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, 1789 BC

If anyone steal another man’s slave/ox/sheep/ass, he shall be put to death. Borrowed as ‘Thou shalt not covet...’ in the Old Testament.
If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. Borrowed as ’An eye for an eye’ in the Old Testament.

Aesop, approx. 550 BC, & other ancient Greek and Roman sources

The goose that lays golden eggs.
The gods help them that help themselves.
It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.
Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.
The boy who cried, ‘Wolf!’
A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Sour grapes.
Divide and rule.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Tempus fugit (Time flies).
To put the cart before the horse.
When at Rome do as the Romans do.
You cannot get blood/water out of a stone.
I fear the Greeks, even though they offer gifts (Virgil).
Leave the rest to the gods (Horace)
Children are not what they used to be.
..given to praising the way things were when he was a boy (Horace).

The Bible
Old Testament, compiled approx. 1000–300 BC

Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis).
They go from strength to strength (Psalms).
Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise (Proverbs).
A soft answer turns away wrath. ditto
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. ditto. Hence: Pride goes before the fall.
Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein. ditto
Where there is no vision, the people perish. ditto
Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour (Ecclesiastes). Hence: A fly in the ointment.
Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days. ditto
Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die (Isaiah).
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? (Jeremiah).

New Testament, compiled 4th century AD

The voice of one crying in the wilderness (Matthew)
Man shall not live by bread alone. ditto
Ye are the salt of the earth. ditto
Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. ditto
Neither cast ye your pearls before swine. ditto
For many are called, but few are chosen. ditto
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. ditto
If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. ditto
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise. ditto
Thirty pieces of silver. ditto
Physician, heal thyself (Luke).
He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone (John).
For the poor ye always have with you. ditto
It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts).
A law unto themselves (Romans).
When I was a child, I spake as a child (I Corinthians).
There was given to me a thorn in the flesh (II Corinthians).
The love of money is the root of all evil (I Timothy).

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616

My friends were poor but honest (All’s Well that Ends Well).
My salad days, when I was green in judgement (Anthony and Cleopatra).
Sweet are the uses of adversity (As You Like It)
All the world’s a stage. ditto
Thereby hangs a tale. ditto
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger (Hamlet).
And to the manner born. ditto
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. ditto
Murder most foul. ditto
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. ditto
Brevity is the soul of wit. ditto
Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. ditto
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil. ditto
The lady doth protest too much, methinks. ditto
I must be cruel only to be kind. ditto
Why then, the world’s mine oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor).
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello).
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-eyed monster... ditto
...The milk of human kindness (Macbeth)
...At one fell swoop. ditto
I bear a charmed life. ditto
Lawn as white as driven snow (The Winter’s Tale). [Lawn = linen.]
If you have tears, prepare to shed them now (Julius Caesar).
This was the most unkindest cut of all. ditto
I am a man more sinned against than sinning. (King Lear).
The wheel is come full circle. ditto
It is a wise father than knows his own child (The Merchant of Venice).
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see. ditto
The quality of mercy is not strained... ditto
A pair of star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet).
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet. ditto
Parting is such sweet sorrow. ditto
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows (The Tempest).
O brave new world. ditto
If music be the food of love, play on (Twelfth Night).
A man can die but once (King Henry IV, Part II).
Comparisons are odious (Much Ado About Nothing).
Men of few words are the best men (King Henry V).
Crabbed age and youth cannot live together (The Passionate Pilgrim)

Other 16th and 17th century writers

No man is an island, entire of itself (John Donne, 1571?–1631).
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. ditto
I was all ear (John Milton, 1608–1674). Usually misquoted as ‘I am all ears’.
Fame is the spur. ditto
They also serve who only stand and wait. ditto
Come wind, come weather (John Bunyan, 1628–1688.)

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