John Heywood

John Heywood

John Heywood

John Heywood was a prominent courtier in Tudor England and was best known in his day as a playwright and musician. He was a favourite at the courts of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, which is surprising given the shifting religious allegiances and straightforward fickle bad temper of most of the Tudor monarchs. He survived into his eighties without anyone shouting ‘off with his head’ – although he was at one point sentenced to be hanged, only to be pardoned and walk free at the eleventh hour.

Heywood’s plays are now mostly forgotten and none of his music survives. It is as a lexicographer that we now best know him and he collected and published several comprehensive sets of proverbs and epigrams that were in use in Tudor England, providing later scholars with an invaluable resource. In 1546 he published the largest and best-known of these: A Dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. The proverbs it lists are dotted about in long discursive texts in the form of rhyming couplets.

The book was one of the early texts that emerged from London’s Fleet Street, which later become the centre of England’s newspaper industry. The frontispiece tells us that it was “Imprinted at London in Fletestrete by Thomas Berthelet prynter to the kynges hyghnesse”.

In the introduction Heywood offers this opinion:

Among other thyngs profityng in our tong
Those whiche much may profit both old & yong
Suche as on their fruite will feede or take holde
Are our coomon playne pithy prouerbes olde.

Well, we certainly do ‘much profit’ from his listing of our ‘common plain pithy proverbs old’. The Tudor period is when modern English began to take on the form that we now use. It’s fair to say that, after Shakespeare, Heywood documented the largest number of sayings that are still in everyday use. Not that he coined them all himself, Heywood was a collector more than a coiner although, as most of the proverbs listed below aren’t known in print earlier, we can’t now tell which of them he coined and which he wrote down after hearing in the street. As John Bartlett, another John who made a notable contribution to documenting the language, said on the publication of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations – ‘I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers’. Heywood’s posy, whether it be his own or ‘other men’s’, is large and important.

Here are a selection of the proverbs that Heywood documented and, for the most part, was the first to put into print:

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

John Heywood’s version: “Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.”

A cat may look at a king

John Heywood’s version: “Can ye iudge a man (quoth I) by his lookyng?
What, a cat maie looke on a kyng. ye know.”

A friend in need is a friend indeed

John Heywood’s version: “A freende is neuer knowne tyll a man haue nede.”

A pig in a poke

John Heywood’s version: “Though ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke,
Yet snatche ye at the poke, that the pyg is in,
Not for the poke, but the pyg good chepe to wyn.”

A rolling stone gathers no moss

John Heywood’s version: “But sonne, the rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse.”

All fingers and thumbs

John Heywood’s version: “Eche fynger is a thumbe.”

All’s well that ends well

John Heywood’s version: “Well aunt (quoth Ales) all iwell that ends well .”

An ill wind

John Heywood’s version: “An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good, men saie.”

As mad as a March hare

John Heywood’s version: “Contrary to reason ye stampe and ye stare.
Ye frete and ye fume, as mad as a marche hare.”

Beggars can’t be choosers

John Heywood’s version: “Beggers should be no choosers, but yet they will:
Who can bryng a begger from choyse to begge still?”

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth

John Heywood’s version: “Where gyfts be gyuen [given] freely, est west north or south,
No man ought to loke a geuen [given] hors in the mouth.”

Don’t put the cart before the horse

John Heywood’s version: “to tourne the cat in the pan,
Or set the cart before the hors.”

Don’t shut the stable door after the horse has bolted

John Heywood’s version: “To late this repentance shewd is.
Whan the stede is stolne, shut the stable durre.”

Enough is as good as a feast

John Heywood’s version: “For folke say, enough is as good as a feast.”

Enough is enough

John Heywood’s version: “Here is enough, I am satisfied (sayde he.)
Sens enough is enough (sayd I) here maie we.”

Even a worm will turn

John Heywood’s version: “Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne.”

Fair exchange is no robbery

John Heywood’s version: “Though chaunge be no robbry for the changed case.”

Half a loaf is better than no bread

John Heywood’s version: “Throwe no gyft agayne at the giuers head,
For better is halfe a lofe then no bread.”

Haste makes waste

John Heywood’s version: “Som thyngs that prouoke yong men to wed in haste
Show after weddyng that haste maketh waste.”

Let sleeping dogs lie

John Heywood’s version: “It is euill [evil] wakyng of a slepyng dog.”

Look before you leap

John Heywood’s version: “Yet let not harmfull haste so far out ren [outrun] your wyt,
But that ye harke to here all the holle some,
That maie please or displease you in tyme to come.
Thus by these lessons ye may learne good cheape
In weddyng and all thyng, to loke or ye leape.”

It’s an ill wind that blows no man good

John Heywood’s version: “An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good, men saie”

Know which side your bread is buttered

John Heywood’s version: “Yes yes (quoth she) for all those wyse words vttred,
I knowe on whiche syde my breade is buttred.”

Make hay while the sun shines

John Heywood’s version: “Whan the sonne shynth make hey. whiche is to saie,
Take tyme whan tyme coomth, lest tyme stele awaie.”

More haste, less speed

John Heywood’s version: “Moste tymes he seeth, the more haste the lesse spede.”

Neither fish nor flesh, nor good red herring

John Heywood’s version: “She is nother fishe nor fleshe nor good red hearyng.”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

John Heywood’s version: “Noght veter noght haue spare to speke spare to spede.”

Little pitchers have big ears

John Heywood’s version: “Auoyd [avoid] your children. smal pitchers haue wide eares.”

Out of sight, out of mind

John Heywood’s version: “Tyme is tyckell. and out of syght out of mynde.”

Out of the frying pan into the fire

John Heywood’s version: “TLeape out of the frying pan into the fyre. And change from yl pein to wurs.”

Rob Peter to pay Paul

John Heywood’s version: “Lyke a pickpurs [pickpocket] pilgrym, ye prie and ye proule
At rouers, to robbe Peter and paie Poule.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day

John Heywood’s version: “Rome was not bylt on a daie (quoth he) & yet stood Tyll it was fynysht [finished] , as some saie, full fayre.”

The fat is in the fire

John Heywood’s version: “Than farewell ryches, the fat is in the fyre.”

The hair of the dog

John Heywood’s version: “Early we rose, in haste to get awaie.
And to the hostler this mornyng by daie
This felow calde, what how felow, thou knaue,
I praie the leat me and my felowe haue
A heare of the dog that bote vs last nyght.
And bytten were we both to the brayne aryght.”

The more the merrier

John Heywood’s version: “Haue among you blynde harpers (sayd I.)
The mo the merier.”

The shoemaker always wears the worst shoes

John Heywood’s version: “But who is wurs shod, than the shoemakers wyfe,
With shops full of newe shapen shoes all hir lyfe”

There’s no fool like an old fool

John Heywood’s version: “But there is no foole to the olde foole, folke saie.”

Two heads are better than one

John Heywood’s version: “But of these two thynges he wolde determyne none
Without aide. For two hedds are better than one.”

Worse for wear

John Heywood’s version: “But sens al thyng is the wors for the wearyng”

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink

John Heywood’s version: “A man may well bryng a horse to the water.
But he can not make hym drynke without he will.”

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

John Heywood’s version: “Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

You can’t hold with the hare and run with the hounds

John Heywood’s version: “There is no mo [more] suche tytifils [scoundrels] in Englands grounde,
To holde with the hare, and run with the hounde.”

You can’t see the wood for the trees

John Heywood’s version: “Plentie is no deyntie [dainty]. ye see not your owne ease.
I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.”

See also: the List of Proverbs.

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.

Gary Martin

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.