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Sowing one’s etymological oats

For many years I have been studying not only the derivation and history of words but also the origin of idioms. No Indo-European forms there, no incompatible vowels, not consonant shifts, but the problems are equally tough. Sometimes it suffices to discover the source of an enigmatic word, in order to understand the phrase. Thus, once we find out what kibosh means, we can decipher the phrase to put the kibosh on. As we have seen, a whole book was needed to approach the truth. Or what is dander in getting one’s dander up? No less enigmatic than kibosh and dander is Jack Robinson. Something happens before you can say Jack Robinson. Who was this gentleman, and how did he become a unit of speed or an ideal of brevity? Or why do we say to go to hell in a handbasket? Every word is clear, but the whole makes little sense.

The origin of the idiom to sow one’s wild oats has bothered me since my student days.  I think it should mean the opposite of what it does. One sows wild, uncultivated oats, that is, weeds. It should mean “to indulge in vice.” And it does, but not quite, for the phrase, I believe, is used only with reference to the past, that is, with the implication that the “sower” (always a young male) who once indulged in debauchery and promiscuity has now settled down; he is not harvesting anything bad. It is not like cutting the mustard: you cut it and achieve your goal. The profligate’s oats never germinate, and the seedlings are forgotten. One probably cannot say: “Stop sowing your wild oats” or “You have been sowing your wild oats for years; get a job, marry, and settle down.” Idioms are in general averse to such transformations (for instance, one will hardly ever hear something like he will soon go to hell in a handbasket or why not cut the mustard next time?), but I still wonder why this phrase is always used in the past.

Let us hope that he is not sowing wild oats. Image credit: Farmer sowing seeds – panoramio by tormentor4555. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In my excellent database of idioms, only once has an explanation turned up. A correspondent to the ever-helpful Notes and Queries wrote in 1852: “In Kent, if a person has been talking at random, it is not uncommon to hear it said ‘you are talking havers’ or folly. Now I find in an old dictionary that the word havers means oats; and therefore I conclude, that the phrase to sow one’s wild oats means nothing more than to sow folly’.” Today we don’t need an old dictionary to discover that the old Germanic name for “oat” has been preserved in German Hafer, Dutch haver, and the Scandinavian noun havre. One should not suggest that Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish havre is an early borrowing from West Germanic, for hafri did turn up in Old Icelandic, though indeed only once, but in poetry, and ancient poetry tends to retain native words better than prose.

The enigmatic word haver reached even Kent. Image credit: Kent UK locator map 2010 by Nilfanion. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, haver “folly” is a fairly well-known northern word, and I was surprised to find it in Kent. Its origin is unknown. To connect it with oats seems rash. Haver “oats” did make its way into Middle English from Norse but, except for northern havercake and haverbread, left no trace in the modern language if we disregard haversack “canvas bag.” This bag was slung over the shoulder and originally contained a soldier’s day rations. Amazingly, German Habersack “a bag in which cavalry carried the oats for their horses” made its way into French (soldiers’ words travel easily from one warring side to the other), and English borrowed it in the eighteenth century.

To sow one’s wild oats bears the stamp of a so-called familiar quotation, a pithy saying from Latin or some other famous source, but I am not aware of such a source, and, as far as I can judge, no one is. In English, the idiom appeared in the sixteenth century and denoted a useless occupation, but frittering away one’s time and being famous for fast living are different things. The reference known to us is to vicious, rather than unprofitable, behavior. The time of this idiom’s emergence is a bit unexpected. Not everybody may realize that colorful idioms in the modern European languages are late. The only exceptions are translated quotations from the Bible and Classics.

While reading Old English, if we understand every word and the grammar of the sentence, we understand everything. Combinations like kick the bucket, kick up one’s toes, or go west/south, all of them meaning “to die” (and there is a whole thesaurus of expressions of the same type) emerged in great quantities during and after the Renaissance. Our oldest authors were fond of similes but had not yet learned to use metaphors. The sixteenth century is a rather early time for the coining of a phrase like to sow one’s oats. That is why I suspected that we are dealing with a translated phrase, and it is irritating that the source has not been found. Yet there is another approach to our idiom, though with it we may also come up short.

Our best books have nothing to say about the origin of the phrase to sow one’s wild oats. For example, Linda and Roger Flavell explain in the Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins: “The allusion is to the young and impulsive lad who sows wild seed on good ground where a mature and experienced man would have sown fine seed. Like the weeds they are, wild oats take hold rapidly but are extremely hard to get rid of, rather like the consequences of young folly.”

A famous rake sowing wild oats. Image credit: The Rake’s Progress 8 by William Hogarth. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Very true, but all the questions remain. Has anyone ever indulged in sowing wild oats? The image, one supposes, should have some foundation in reality. Nowadays, sowing one’s wild oats most often means “having sexual intercourse with many women.” In British English, oats is slang for “sperm”; hence the universally understood reference to promiscuity. That is of course the reason why, when today one uses the idiom to sow one’s wild oats, people think of a young male hopping from one contact to another. I wonder what the order of the linguistic events was and whether oats, unbeknownst to us, meant “seed” and “sperm” for centuries, but surfaced only in our living memory.  Slang may remain dormant for a long time without appearing in print, though oats is a rather poor synonym for seed. To feel one’s oats means “to be confident.” Is this too an allusion to a man’s triumphant virility? The phrase is allegedly an Americanism. Finally, oats, we hear, has come to denote “sexual gratification”; this appears to be another word from overseas.

The answer about the origin of our idiom may be close at hand, but some link is missing, and we have to confess that the source remains unknown. Samuel Johnson was talking havers when he said that oats is a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. Oats and wild oats have come back to haunt us. Rootless words and idioms—this is our etymological oatmeal, which supports neither people nor horses.

All this I was going to use as a preface to the last part of my plant series (the etymology of the word oat), but decided to divide the story into two parts. I’ll regale you with the second part next week. See special essays on get one’s dander up, put the kibosh on, and cut the mustard.

Feature image credit: Avena fatua by Matt Lavin. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Kirsty Findlay

    ‘Feeling his oats’ relates to a spirited horse who has been over-fed with oats – a high-octane food..
    The effect of eating oats on a horse is to increase energy. Getting the amount of oats right for any given horse is a skilled job.
    Normally, you want your pony to be willing and well-mannered. If you give too many oats, he may buck and shy and refuse to obey his rider – a marked change in behaviour. Shakespear’s ‘bean-fed horse’ has been similarly over-fed – on beans – but with that diet you’d expect more farting too..

  2. Stan Smith

    In my understanding, feeling his oats was applied to a horse which was restive and restless because it had eaten

  3. petey

    Hello Mr Liberman. I love your blog to bits, to use an idiom. However, I have heard “sow wild oats” used as often of women as of men.

  4. Jane Blackie

    My late father, a Cumbrian, born 1909, always referred to and ate haverbread (i.e. oatcakes).

    JOHN (“JACK”) ROBINSON, who was related to Wm. Wordsworth’s family, was an C18 Cumbrian. Trained at Gray’s Inn, he became Attorney in his
    birthplace, Appleby, later its Mayor, then Deputy Lieutenant for Westmorland. Moving into politics he eventually became Secretary to the Treasury, in which office he was accused, wrongly, of bribery. It was R.B. Sheridan who, forced to name the activists, replied that he could name names ” as soon as I could say ‘Jack Robinson’ “.
    His large, splendid house, the White House, still stands conspicuously in Appleby’s main street, the Boroughgate.
    And he would most certainly have eaten haverbread.

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