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The meaning and origin of the expression: Great oaks from little acorns grow

Great oaks from little acorns grow

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Great oaks from little acorns grow'?

The proverb 'great oaks from little acorns grow' puts forward the idea that great enterprises may have modest beginnings.

It is intended to be an encouragement to persist with small efforts as they may build to grander ones in time - similar to the more modern 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Great oaks from little acorns grow'?

Great oaks from little acorns grow'Great oaks from little acorns grow' was first used in that form around the start of the 19th century. Like many proverbs though the thought it contains had been expressed using different wording for many centuries before that.

The first use of the proverb in its precise present form that I know of is from Philadelphia newspaper The Examiner, September 1833:

'Great oaks from little acorns grow,' and I hope and trust that from your small beginning, this ancient and honorable Commonwealth will again renew her standing.

That is preceded by an example which is alike enough to be considered the same phrase, in David Everett's Caleb Bingham - Columbian Orator, circa 1795:

Large streams from little fountains flow,
Tall oaks from little acorns grow.

There have been several variants of the same idea put into print earlier, right the way back to Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1385:

An ok cometh of a litel spir [shoot]

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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