May 15, 2016
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
Let me first start this post off with a story.
As I remember my time as an eighth-grader, this phrase comes to mind. That was the first time I had ever heard of this phrase. My English teacher at the time talked about how often he heard “Fools rush in…” in songs and he thus gave us the assignment of trying to figure out what the phrase meant.
The phrase seemed simple enough. However, despite assigning my class tons of busy work that year, my English teacher wanted us to put some thought into this assignment. Whatever.
What answer did I come up with? I forgot all the details and my paper is long gone. I would imagine that the meaning I came up with was very close to any definition one could find online. More about that in a minute.
Now, has anyone reading this heard of the saying before? If you have, you should recognize it in lyrics or in a 1997 movie starring Selma Hayek and that guy from Friends. What was his name?
When Was This Phrase First Used?
One would think that this proverb comes from a song, but I figured it would have to come from written text or spoken word first. My search took my once again to The Phrase Finder, which was the best source on the matter.
Alexander Pope is the source of the phrase. It first showed up in Pope’s An essay on criticism (1709). Here is the passage:
Such shameless Bards we have; and yet ’tis true,
There are as mad, abandon’d Criticks too.
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read,
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head,
With his own Tongue still edifies his Ears,
And always List’ning to Himself appears.
All Books he reads, and all he reads assails,
From Dryden’s Fables down to Durfey’s Tales.
With him, most Authors steal their Works, or buy;
Garth did not write his own Dispensary.
Name a new Play, and he’s the Poet’s Friend,
Nay show’d his Faults – but when wou’d Poets mend?
No Place so Sacred from such Fops is barr’d,
Nor is Paul’s Church more safe than Paul’s Church-yard:
Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
For some context: Pope was referring to the literary critics of his day.
Also, in that time, the word “fool” was not as much of a pejorative term as it is now. Back then, a fool was someone who behaved foolishly. When we call someone a fool today, we are essentially calling them idiots.
To bring this back on track, other authors would use the line in their writings. Among them: Edmund Rurke (in Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790); Thomas Hardy (in The Woodlanders, 1887); E.M. Forster (Where Angels Fear to Tread – title of his first novel – 1905); and James Joyce (in Ulysses, 1922).
What Does “Fools Rush in…” Mean?
A rudimentary Google search produced this answer:
fools rush in where angels fear to tread
phrase of fool
people without good sense or judgment will have no hesitation in tackling a situation that even the wisest would avoid.
Here is the answer given by Gary Martin via The Phrase Finder:
The rash or inexperienced will attempt things that wiser people are more cautious of.
That seems simple enough, but anyone can put another spin on the saying.
Is There Another Meaning?
Speaking of…One of my eighth-grade classmates went a different route. Whereas everyone else in my class struggled to make content from such a straightforward answer, she turned the phrase on its head. In her essay, she said that the “fools” were only called that because they took chances. The “wise men” or “angels” were the real fools since they were so adverse to risk.
This was a 13-year-old and she came up with this! She was right, though.
Even Elvis’s song talks about love as a risk. Love may hurt sometimes, but it’s well worth it.
Now, whenever I hear this phrase, more often than not, I think of the California Gold Rush. Maybe because of terms like “Fool’s Gold” and the word “rush” is in there. (And that can be another post.)
Anyway, I would think that the Gold Rush would fit here. To put it simply, those involved took on risks, even selling their property and life savings in order to strike it rich by finding gold.
That sounds a lot like an entrepreneur. I have been working with and for entrepreneurs lately, and I’ve been doing some research. I have always known that entrepreneurship carries a lot of risk, but one has to take it in order to start any kind of business.
Should one be called a fool for taking the risk? Perhaps they should if they do none of the important research. Beyond that, one may never get to where they need to go if they don’t at least take a chance.
Martin, Gary. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread — meaning and origin.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 15 May 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fools-rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread.html>.