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The meaning and origin of the expression: Early to bed and early to rise makes and man healthy, wealthy and wise

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Early to bed and early to rise makes and man healthy, wealthy and wise


Literal meaning.


The length and precision of this proverb leave little room for interpretation as to its meaning. Like many improving mottos, for example 'a rolling stone gathers no moss' and 'a stitch in time saves nine', it was an encouragement to hard, diligent work. The earliest record of a proverb that approximates to our current version that I can find in print is in The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486:

As the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth in this wyse. Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy & zely.

Note: the Middle English word zely comes down to us now as 'silly'. This has numerous meanings, commonly 'foolish'. The 1486 meaning was 'auspicious; fortunate'. So 'holy helthy & zely' meant 'wise, healthy and fortunate', which isn't so far from 'healthy, wealthy and wise'.

The description of it as 'old English' in 1486 does place this expression as one of the oldest phrases still in use in everyday English. The earliest version that I know of of the current form of the proverb was printed in John Clarke's Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina in 1639:

Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Poor RichardThe person most associated with the phrase and who brought it into common usage in the USA was Benjamin Franklin. Poor Richard's Almanack, which was an annual journal published by Benjamin Franklin under the pseudonym of Poor Richard between 1732 and 1758. It included the usual almanac fare of maxims, poetry, weather predictions and astrological ravings.

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise is found in the 1735 edition. There's good reason to believe that Franklin endorsed the proverb's uplifting message; it is certainly in keeping with the numerous proverbs of earnest intent that were published in Poor Richard before they were seen elsewhere.

Given the social conventions of the day, Franklin wasn't especially bothered when women got to work. The typographic conventions of the day also involved the use of the long 's', which appears similar to a lowercase 'f'. Present day transcriptions lead us to believe that getting a good night's sleep will make us 'healthy, wealthy and wife'. At least Franklin avoided 'where the bee sucks, there suck I'.

Later American commentators have had some fun at Franklin's expense. In 1928, Carl Sandburg suggested that 'Early to bed and early to rise and you never meet any prominent people'. In the New Yorker, February 1939, James Thurber turned it round with:

Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.

See also: the List of Proverbs and 'the early bird catches the worm'.