5 English proverbs and their meanings

Proverbs are traditional expressions used to give advice, impart wisdom, or make observations. Many of them come from centuries ago, and obviously, some of them are bulls^&$*, but still, they’re all good to know.

Learning a handful of English’s most famous proverbs may help you understand nuances of the language as well as enhance your social skills – just like idiomatic expressions. Who knows? Your life might take a new turn once you’ve read this article.

Here’s a list of 5 English-language proverbs and sayings that you should awkwardly try to shoehorn into your next conversation.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

This first adage will warm your heart. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” allegedly emerged from a line by Roman poet Sextus Aurelius Propertius in 15BC, who wrote “always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows”.

The underlying sentiment describes the nostalgia or love one feels for someone or something that is or has been absent from their life: an ex, a pet, or just someone who has been away too long. 

Example: I haven’t seen my lawyer in years and still hate him. I guess in my case, absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. 

Beggars can’t be choosers

This next proverb also goes back centuries. “Beggars can’t be choosers” expresses that someone in need or asking for something should be grateful for any help they can get, even if it is not exactly what they are asking for. The phrase is often used to remind someone to be grateful for what is offered. Pro tip: don’t shame anyone asking for help – it can be hard. 

Example: The only puppy we have left is a chihuahua, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?

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Too many cooks spoil the broth

The proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” means that a plan or project is likely to fail because too many people are working or trying to lead it. In other words, the final product is likely to be worse as a result.

Your Italian nonna has undoubtedly used the Italian version of this expression con troppi galli non si fa mai giorno, and with good reason.

Example: You shouldn’t have hired seven people to organize tonight’s party – too many cooks spoil the broth!

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch

This penultimate entry refers to making plans prematurely and expecting certain results. Essentially, assumptions can lead to disappointment. Just like a farmer shouldn’t count the number of chickens he will have based on the number of eggs that were laid. 

Too chicken to use it? We agree that it’s a terrifying expression.

Example: She had already prepared her victory speech before the award was announced, so I told her not to count her chickens before they hatched. Ironically, the award was for hatching chickens.

The early bird catches the worm

There is little wiggle room for our last entry. The proverb “the early bird catches the worm” (alternatively “the early bird gets the worm”) first appeared in a 1605 book of proverbs by English historian William Camden.

The idea is that the birds that wake up early have a better chance of catching a decent breakfast – wiggly worms – than others. Likewise, by starting your day early, you’re likely to accomplish more. 

Note: a shortened version of the proverb “early bird” is often used by hotels and restaurants to advertise preferential rates.

Example: The sale starts this Friday at 6am and I’ll be there – the early bird catches the worm! 

Do these proverbs tickle your fancy? Try our online English lessons Gymglish for free today and receive your very own free level assessment!

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