You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear
What's the meaning of the phrase 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear'?
This proverb expresses the view that you can't turn something which is inherently low-grade or ugly into something valuable or attractive.
What's the origin of the phrase 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear'?
This is one of the oldest proverbs in English.
The earliest record that I can find of it comes from a book by the English Tudor satirist Stephen Gosson, entitled Ephemerides of Phialo, 1579:
"Seeking... too make a silke purse of a sowes eare."
Whether Gosson coined the proverb we can't now know.
Many of the early 17th and 18th century references to the proverb refer to it as 'old' and 'Scottish'. For example, the glossary of slang terms published in 1699 under the title of A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew. This is the entry for the word 'luggs' (that is, ears):
Luggs Ye can ne make a Silk-Purse of a Sowe's Luggs, a Scotch Proverb.
In 1812, Sir Walter Scott wrote this in a letter:
I am labouring here to contradict an old proverb, and make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
It certainly was old by 1812, but whether it was Scottish is open to some doubt.
Not all old proverbs encapsulate wisdom that would be accepted nowadays, but the various "you can't..." proverbs do. For instance:
'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear' must surely rank with those in terms of truth. A sow's ear is pretty clearly unpromising material for a fashion accessory.
See also: the List of Proverbs.