From counting magpies to red skies at night, Chloe Rhodes unearths the stories behind our favourite sayings
One for sorrow, two for joy
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told
This well-known rhyme has been around since the mid 19th century when the number of magpies seen foraging together was regarded as a forecaster of future events. Interestingly, everybody knows what bird is meant (usually the magpie, but in some parts of the world where magpies are rarely if ever seen, crows or other corvids) – though no kind of bird at all is mentioned in the rhyme.
As with many proverbs passed down in the oral tradition there are numerous regional variations; in Ireland and the US the most commonly recited version goes:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral
Four for a birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven's the Devil his own self.
Common to all the versions is the notion that a lone magpie is a harbinger of sorrow and therefore unlucky. The bird's bad reputation may stem from its behaviour; it is known for stealing shiny objects and for killing other birds' chicks to feed its own, but it seems more likely
that the superstitions that surround it have their roots in folklore.
British legend has it that the magpie was the only bird not to sing to comfort Jesus as he suffered on the cross, while in Scotland the bird was believed to hold a drop of the devil's blood under its tongue. If you do see a solitary magpie though you can ward off bad luck by saluting, spitting over your shoulder three times, doffing your hat or saying, "Morning, Mr Magpie, how are you this fine day?" Alternatively, you could say "Good morning, Mr Magpie, how's your wife?" (in the hope that the bird's mate is hiding somewhere near by to turn your sorrow into joy).
Somewhat sounder is the proverb "A single magpie in spring foul weather will bring", from the birds' habit of feeding together only in fine weather.
A rolling stone gathers no moss
The saying first appeared in the form we recognise today in Erasmus' Adagia, published around 1500, which has the line: "Musco lapis volutus haud obducitur", meaning "A stone set rolling is not covered with moss". The English translation was included in the Tudor playwright John Heywood's 1546 collection of proverbs, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, as "The rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse".
For hundreds of years the proverbial meaning was straightforward. Moss grows very slowly from spores which need time to anchor themselves, so a still, undisturbed stone makes a good foundation for moss to flourish; similarly, a fruitful, productive life can only come from putting down roots and establishing yourself in one place, if you're a rolling stone, you'll have nothing to show for yourself.
By the early 16th century the term "rolling stone" had become synonymous with vagabond or wastrel and this interpretation still holds. But when legendary Blues musician Muddy Waters labelled himself a Rollin' Stone, there was a section of society that thought it sounded
like a good thing to be. By the time the Rolling Stones used Waters' song as their band name, the phrase was associated with being free-spirited and unencumbered by responsibility.
Today the phrase is often used as a justification for constant change and chimes with a modern notion that it's preferable not to tie yourself down.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
There is evidence to suggest that the apple was held in high regard in Wales long before the health benefits we now associate them with could have begun to be understood. Several examples of early Welsh poetry are dedicated to the beauty of apple blossom, including the "Afallennau" ("Merlin's Apple Trees") in The Black Book of Camarthen, a collection of poetry which was transcribed in around 1250 but describes events from as early as the sixth century.
Another collection of early Welsh poetry, The Red Book of Hergest, includes descriptions of herbal remedies and makes clear the magical, curative properties of apples, describing them as a charm to combat "all sorts of agues".
And it seems they were right. We now know that many of the chemical properties of apples are directly beneficial to our health: they are rich in vitamin C, which reduces cholesterol and boosts the immune system; they're a rich source of phytochemicals that can act as cancer-fighting anti-oxidants and are believed to reduce risk of stroke, prostate cancer, Type II diabetes and asthma.
Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb
This proverb was first recorded in 1678 in John Ray's Collection of Proverbs as: "As good be hang'd for an old sheep as a young lamb".
But it is likely to have been in use since at least the start of the 17th century...
The saying itself is a reference to the harsh British penal system which attached the death penalty (or at the very least, deportation to Australia) to a list of crimes which today we might consider minor.
The theft of goods worth more than one shilling carried a death sentence, as did stealing sheep, regardless of the size or age of the animal. The phrase makes a mockery of the efficacy of such draconian penalties by pointing out that rather than deterring those desperate enough to risk death in order to steal a lamb, they simply encouraged hungry thieves to set their sights on the largest sheep they could find.
By the time the law was finally reformed in the 1820s the phrase was well established as a proverb and is still used to suggest that if the consequences of your actions will be the same no matter what kind of risk you take, you may as well make it a big one.
Red sky at night
Red sky at night, shepherd's delight
Red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning.
This ancient proverb is one of our best-known weatherlore rhymes and dates back to at least the 14th century. The earliest known printed example of the saying appears in Middle English in John Wycliffe's Bible published in 1395 and by the time the Authorised King James version was produced in 1611 it contained what was recognisably an early incarnation of today's version:
When it is evening, ye say, It will be
fair weather: for the sky is red. And in
the morning, It will be foul weather
to day: for the sky is red and lowring.
Shepherds, along with sailors (who appear in an alternative version of the rhyme) had to find ways of predicting the weather in order to plan the best course of action for the day ahead. Sheep might need to be brought down from the hills if heavy rain threatened and, in the days before meteorological technology, those whose livelihoods depended on the weather developed their own forecasting methods.
This one happens to be fairly accurate; redness is seen in the sky opposite the sun when light rays hit water droplets in the atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere where the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and weather systems move from west to east, red sky at night means that clouds are moving away from us, while red sky in the morning means that water-laden air is heading our way.
One for Sorrow...A Book of Old-fashioned Lore by Chloe Rhodes is published by Michael O'Mara.