Last week we talked about tongue twisters, which are a fun way to improve your pronunciation. Akin to tongue twisters, proverbs are short sentences that are typically unique to a language, and widely known to native speakers. When the going gets tough, the tough get going is an example of English proverb.
Since proverbs are idiomatic expressions, intermediate and advanced students should get familiar with as many as they can, in order to improve both their vocabulary and conversational skills.
Here are some interesting English proverbs, along with their origin and meaning.
A popular American English proverb, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” means “when the situation becomes difficult, strong people are able to step up and handle it”. Attributed to both John F. Kennedy’s father and the American coach K. Rockne, it was also popularised by Billy Ocean’s homonymous song.
This exhortation literally means “do not disclose the secret” (either accidentally or deliberately), because once it is out, it is too late to go back. While there is no certain origin for this expression, a funny and quite implausible theory suggests it originates from a fraud common in fairs and markets from the 16th century onwards. According to it, livestock merchants would sell piglets in bags, and instruct customers not to open the bag until they reached home, to make sure the animal would not escape. However, this would allow them to swap the piglet with a cat and trick the unknowing customer.
This rather poetic saying means that no matter how bad a situation might look, it will always have some good aspect to it. Attributed to John Milton in his work Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, from 1634, it has been commonly reported in various forms in literature and oral tradition since then.
This expression (as well as the more modern “the proof is in the pudding”) conveys the idea that in order to know whether something is good or not, you have to try it first. Some sources date it back as early as the 14th century, but the first printed occurrence can be found in 1605 in Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke.
Quite literally, this proverb refers to the feeling that, if you are fervently waiting for something to happen, time seems to slow down. The phrase dates back to the 18th century, and was widely popularised by Ben Franklin in his annual almanac, published under the pseudonym Poor Richard.
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