Do You Know the True Meanings of These English Proverbs?


Robin Tyler

7 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Think you know your English proverbs?

Bet we have a few in this quiz that will put your knowledge to the test and then some!

But what is a proverb, exactly? Well, let us take this direct description from the internet dictionary. A proverb is "a short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or a piece of advice."

Easy enough, right? And you would have heard all the classics. For example, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Or what about "practice makes perfect?"

And yes, we have a number of proverbs in this quiz that you should know, but we have also found some really difficult ones to test you to the fullest.

I bet you didn't know that proverbs have formed part of the English language for hundreds and hundreds of years. And many of them come from the Bible. Were you aware of that? Some even come from older civilizations, for example, ancient Egypt while others have a similar form in many different cultures. 

So let us get down to business ... the nitty gritty, so to speak. Before you are 35 of the greatest proverbs ever. Let's see how many you actually know. 

Can you tell us the meaning of the English proverb 'A fish rots from the head down?'

A popular English proverb, there are many theories to when this first came to existence. A written record of a very similar saying has been found from 1768 in a piece of writing by Sir James Porter.


Do you know what the proverb 'A good man is hard to find' actually means?

Believe it or not, this is a fairly modern proverb and first appeared in a 1918 song by Eddie Green.


'A leopard cannot change its spots'. Any idea as to what this English proverb is referring to?

This phrase is found in the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23 to be exact.


The popular English proverb, 'All that glitters is not gold' means what exactly?

Did you know that the original form of this phrase was 'All that glisters is not gold'. And who used it first? Shakespeare in his play, the "Merchant of Venice."


You would have heard it, but what does, 'As you sow you shall reap' mean?

This popular English proverb was first seen in the Bible, Galatians 7 to be exact.


What does 'as thick as thieves' mean?

Although the first written example of this was found in 1828 in the English paper, the Morning Chronicle, it is thought it was used in society for at least 100 years before that.


So what do you think the English proverb, 'Beauty is only skin deep' really means?

This phrase first appeared in a piece of writing by Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. He wrote 'All the carnal beauty of my wife, Is but skin deep.'


The term 'Beggars should not be choosers' is best described as ___________

This proverb is very similar to another, 'Don't look a gift horse in the mouth'. It first appeared in 1652, later than the gift horse ...


You would know this one for sure. 'Charity begins at home' means what?

Early indications of this phrase could be traced by to the 1300s in Old English.


This phrase comes from the Bible. But what does 'Don't cast your pearls before the swine,' mean?

This phrase is found in the Bible, Matthew 7:6 to be exact


Could you tell us what, 'Do as I say, not as I do' means?

This phrase was first used in a book by John Selden called Table Talk which first appeared in 1654.


'Don't let the cat out of the bag'. You have heard it many times but which of the answers below best describes it?

Interestingly, many theories abound as to when and where this phrase started. Some even say that it is to do with letting a cat-o-nine-tails (a whip) out of a bag meant a lashing for sailors on a ship. All we know if that today it has to do with keeping a secret.


'Empty vessels make the most noise' refers to which option below?

Another option of this English proverb is 'Empty vessels make the most sound'.


Woof! What do you think that the proverb, 'Every dog has its day' refers to?

Rumor has it that this phrase was first coined by Queen Elizabeth I, although many historians believe that the phrase was used before 1550.


Slow down for this one! What does the proverb 'Haste makes waste,' refer to?

Records show that this saying, well an Old English version of it, was first documented in around 1546.


Saddle up for this proverb! What do you think 'horses for courses' means in a nutshell?

A phrase used much in modern society, essentially 'horses for courses' is broken down like this. People have certain talents and it is essential to choose the right person for the job if you want it done properly.


You would have heard this proverb before, 'The pen is mightier than the sword'. What do you think it means?

This phrase was first found in a play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839. It was called Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.


'Never look a gift horse in the mouth' refers to which of these below?

This phrase first appeared in print in 1546 in a book by John Heywood about English proverbs. It was called 'A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue'. Is that old English or is someone missing a spellchecker?


Missing someone? 'Well absence makes the heart grow fonder'. Do you know what that English proverb refers to?

Interestingly, unlike many other proverbs, this one is not that old and was first seen in print in 1832.


Do you have any idea as to which of the options below 'Many a true word is spoken in jest' refers to?

Acclaimed English author Geoffrey Chaucer first used this phrase in 1390 in A Cook's Tale.


'Don't bite the hand that feeds you' is a popular English proverb. What does it mean?

No one knows when this phrase was first used, but it was seen in print from the 18th century onward. Political writer Edmund Burke was credited with using it in print first.


Can you tell us what the proverb, 'The love of money is the root of all evil' refers to?

This is a Biblical phrase, found in Timothy 6:10.


Sure you have heard this one before, but from the options below, pick out the one that best suits the proverb, 'No man is an island'.

This phrase was first used by poet John Donne in 1624 in his poem Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Seuerall Steps in my Sicknes - Meditation XVII.


'No rest for the wicked' is a proverb you would have heard time and time again. What does it actually mean?

Found in Isaiah 57 in the Bible, this phrase is literal and describes the eternal torment that awaits evil doers and sinners.


'Rome wasn't built in a day'. You know that proverb for sure. What does it mean?

An old phrase, this was first found in a French poem from 1190. It was first seen in English in 1545.


Often said by parents to children, the meaning of 'Silence is golden' is often misunderstood. Which of these below fits with it?

Some believe this proverb originated in ancient Egypt. Its first use in English is seen in 1831, translated from German by Thomas Carlyle.


'Strike while the iron is hot' means what?

With its reference to blacksmithing, you would guess this is a fairly old phrase. And it is. It first appeared in print in 1566 in a written piece by Richard Edwards.


Can you tell us what, 'The darkest hour is just before the dawn' means?

Although probably used well before then, the first example in print of this proverb were seen in 1650 in the book, Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof by Thomas Fuller.


A classic proverb indeed, but what does. 'Don't count your chickens before they hatch' mean?

This phrase was first seen in print in 1570 in 'New Sonnets and pretty Pamphlets' by Thomas Howell. No doubt it had been used before that.


You will know this one! 'Honesty is the best policy' means __________

This proverb was found in the writings of Sir Edwin Sandys in around 1599. He wrote 'Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie'


Surely one of the most classic proverbs, but what does, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' actually mean?

Many ancient cultures have similar sayings but this phrase is found in the Bible in Matthew 7:12. This was commonly called the golden rule in the 17th century.


'Two heads are better than one'. Are they? We're not sure but what does it mean?

John Heywood first recorded this phrase in print in 1546.


What does, 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket' mean?

The notion of this proverb is basically to ensure that you have a backup plan. The eggs in one basket could be destroyed with a simple trip and fall. Two baskets carried by separate people mean that at least half survive should this occur.


'You can't judge a book by its cover.' No, you can't! But just what does this proverb refer to?

Think of a restaurant that looks terrible on the inside and out but serves Michelin star quality food. That's an example of what the proverb is referring to.


And finally, what does, 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' allude to?

This proverb is so true. People have so many varied tastes, that what we might find horrible in the form of decor for example, another person might love. This can be applied to anything, really.


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