Famous Sayings: #11 — ‘People in Glass Houses…’

May 22, 2016

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

those who live in glass houses, people who live in glass houses, shouldn't throw stones, glass house
Such a stunning image.

A got a late start to this post, as I was working on one I have scheduled tomorrow.

Anyway, maybe this topic speaks to me because of recent events.

An alternate to this saying is, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Either way, let’s look at the origin of this famous saying.

Where Does this Famous Saying Originate?

Sadly, there weren’t a lot of sources on this, but I did come across an old post on Blogpsot that listed past uses of the phrase.

The work cited was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1385). Of course, I couldn’t just go with this source and went to find the actual text.

There are various sources with the text, but since the work is from 1385, the original wording is in Olde English. Luckily, I was able to find a modern translation.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s work is in five books, and it looks like the quote in question in in the second.

Here are the words in their original from Book 2, Stanza 124 (via Project Gutenberg):

`What is the sonne wers, of kinde righte,
Though that a man, for feblesse of his yen,
May nought endure on it to see for brighte?
Or love the wers, though wrecches on it cryen?  865
No wele is worth, that may no sorwe dryen.
And for-thy, who that hath an heed of verre,
Fro cast of stones war him in the werre!

Here are the translated words (via Poetry in Translation):

What? Is the sun worse, in proper light,
Though a man, through feebleness of eye,
Cannot endure to see it full and bright?
Or is love worse, though wretches on it cried?
No goodness of worth that sorrow has not tried.
And for sure, he who has a head of glass,
Should beware of any hostile stones that pass!

So, in the poem, Chaucer speaks of a “head of glass.” Interesting. How did we get to a “glass houses”?

Another quote cited from the first source comes from George Herbert. He wrote, “Whose house is of glass, must not throw stones at another.” The date given for this quote was 1651, although Herbert died in 1633. Some of his words were printed after his death.

A page from WorldofQuotes.com led me to the work entitled Jacula Prudentum. I was able to find Herbert’s quote on the Internet Archive. The quote can be found on page 227 (page 240 on the reader).

Benjamin Franklin was also credited with a version of the saying:

Don’t throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.

I also found confirmation on Brainy Quote.

What Does “People in Glass Houses…” Mean?

The metaphor does give the meaning. Picture someone living in a glass house. I mean, if they threw stones within their own house, they would be hurting themselves, but throwing stones at others would have pretty much the same result.

Let’s look at a few interpretations anyway.

My first source listed two variations of the meaning, with one quoted from Random House.

Here is the first:

Those who are vulnerable should not attack others.

Here is the second (via Random House, 1996):

To ‘live in a glass house’ is used as a figure of speech referring to vulnerability.

I also looked at a page on ABA English website. There was a generated images via Happy.me. The image has the quote with the meaning directly below it. The meaning reads:

Do not criticize others if you have similar weaknesses yourself.

This is the closest to the modern-day meaning. Basically, it’s warning people not to be hypocrites.

How Does This Saying Apply Today?

It applies, every day, and I see some version of it just about every day. No matter where you look, in real life and on the Internet, this saying applies.

Hypocrisy runs rampant, from political pundits, to competitors in different businesses, to strangers across the web. People like to call out others on bad behavior then turn around and do the same things.

Have you been judged in some of your worst moments? Chances are the person who has the harshest criticisms is mean to others, too, and on a regular basis. They wouldn’t like to have someone else bring that up, but they focus on others and make them feel bad. The irony.

Have you made a loud noise once? You might be reported or stared at by a person who yells and/or plays loud music regularly.

Is someone taking advantage of government loopholes? Chances are they are telling on others who are doing the same thing.

And we have seen cases where politicians make or enforce rules while breaking the same rules themselves. “Family values,” anyone?

So yeah…it’s quite easy to be a hypocrite, and it’s often hard to take criticism. Hence the continued relevance of this famous saying.

Works Cited

“Benjamin Franklin Quotes Page 4.” BrainyQuote. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/b/benjamin_franklin_4.html>.

Brendan, Diane M., Killings, Douglas B., and David, Widger. “Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer.” Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Troilus and Criseyde, by Geoffrey Chaucer (eBook). Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation. Last Updated 26 Jan 2013. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/257/257-h/257-h.htm#link2H_4_0002>.

Estivill, Kate. “English Expression – People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” ABA Teachers’ Blog. ABA English, LLC. 25 Apr 2014. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <http://www.abaenglish.com/blog/english-expression-people-who-live-in-glass-houses-shouldnt-throw-stones/>.

“English Poems: Together with His Collection of Proverbs Entitled Jacula Prudentum : George Herbert : Free Download & Streaming.” Internet Archive. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <https://archive.org/stream/englishpoemstog00herbgoog#page/n240/mode/2up>.

“George Herbert Quotes – Page 47.” WorldofQuotes.com 2013. Web. Retrieved May 22 2016. <http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/George+Herbert/47/index.html>.

Herbert, George. English Poems: Together with His Collection of Proverbs Entitled Jacula Prudentum. Longmans, Green, and Co. (1891). Page 227. Print.

Kline, A.S. “Chaucer, Geoffrey – Troilus and Criseyde – Book II modernised.” Poetry in Translation. 2001. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/TroilusandCressidaBkII.htm>.

“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Say what? Origins of words and Sayings. 11 Aug 2006. Web. Retrieved 22 May 2016. <http://originsofsayings.blogspot.com/2006/08/people-who-live-in-glass-houses-should.html>.

Titelman, Gregory Y. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. Random House; New York, NY (1996). Print.


2 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #11 — ‘People in Glass Houses…’

  1. Clara Barton wrote of the US government in her diaries on Thursday, April 14th, 1864. The quote is, “The Cabinet know it, but people that live in glass houses must not throw stones.“ That is the first example which the quote is used in its entirety that matches the phrase used today.


  2. Oliver Ford

    Almost certainly the “throw stones” part is derived from the pericope adulterae in the Gospel of John – Jesus saying “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. The term “throwing stones” – meaning to attack someone when you’re not perfect yourself comes from this passage. The metaphor was then extended with the abstract idea of “sin” replaced with the image of being in a glass house.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.