August 28, 2016
A stitch in time saves nine.
I’m not sure when I first heard this saying, but I seem to think that I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. In any event, I was a child.
Speaking of childhood, I also came across a cute little website geared toward families and K-12 children. The website is called Wonderopolis and it was founded in 2010 by the National Center for Families Learning.
As this post on Wonderopolis points out, when many people hear this saying they think of mothers (repairing their child’s torn clothing). Come to think of it … I don’t believe my mother ever uttered this phrase. Anyway …
Every now and then, I would hear this saying. And to be honest, I never really thought about the meaning. So, it was doubly interesting to do the research on it.
When Did This Saying Originate?
There is no clear origin. But by all accounts, it looks like the first time this saying was found in print. That means that it had already been around for a number of years.
Origins in Print
As Gary Martin and others would attest, the first instance of “A stitch in time …” can be found in Thomas Fuller’s 1732 work, Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Moder, Foreign and British. (Boy, these old works sure have long titles!)
The quote is found on The Phrase Finder, but I also looked up the book on the Internet Archive for confirmation. Here is the passage (via Page 283):
6291 A Stitch in Time
May save nine.
Please note that use of an uncommon character in place of the lower-case “s” on the page. It is close to a lower-case “f,” but that is Olde English.
Fuller also gives an explanation for writing the verse as he did. As transcribed by Martin:
Because verses are easier got by heart, and stick faster in the memory than prose; and because ordinary people use to be much taken with the clinking of syllables; many of our proverbs are so formed, and very often put into false rhymes; as, a stitch in time, may save nine; many a little will make a mickle. This little artiface, I imagine, was contrived purposely to make the sense abide the longer in the memory, by reason of its oddness and archness.
Our modern usage of this saying comes a little later in the 18th century. In 1797, English astronomer Francis Baily wrote the phrase in his Journal; the journal was published in 1856 by Augustus De Morgan.
Here’s the passage:
After a little while we acquired a method of keeping her [a boat] in the middle of the stream, by watching the moment she began to vary, and thereby verifying the vulgar proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Possible Metaphors at Work
As Martin points out, the saying is generally a reference to sewing. Basically, it is best to sew up a small hole in fabric as soon as possible; that way, you will save the stitches you will need later, when the hole gets bigger. In short, one stitch now will save nine stiches you will need later if the problem isn’t quickly addressed.
Is there another metaphor? Well, in my search I came across two sources, one being from Yahoo! Answers (I know, I know), that seemed to allude to a “macabre” background for this saying.
A question was started on Yahoo! Answers asked about the origin of the phrase “A stitch in time saves nine” was started 9 years ago. Here is an answer from a user called Kate:
This is a very old sailing term when burying someone at sea.
9 pounds of shot were used to weigh the body sack, then, when the sack was stitched closed, the last stitch was passed through a body part … thus keeping the shroud and the body together. Otherwise, the 9 lbs of shot would be wasted
Should the so called body ‘awake’ 9 pounds of shot was saved.
I found this explanation on BookBrowse, along with another possible origin of the term. The first explanation was also tied to sailing (and sewing). Basically, a sail that is coming apart should be mended as soon as possible.
What Does ‘A Stitch in Time’ Mean?
There is one basic meaning.In short, this is a reference to procrastination.
From my search, I first came across this definition on the Google Search Results page:
a stitch in time saves nine
phrase of stitch
if you sort out a problem immediately it may save a lot of extra work later.
Here’s another definition from the Cambridge Dictionary:
a stitch in time (saves nine)
said to mean that it is better to act or deal with problems immediately, because if you wait and deal with them later, things will get worse and the problems will take longer to deal with
Its meaning is quite simple: Don’t procrastinate! Procrastination means to delay or put off doing something until a later time.
Martin says that this saying is “an incentive to the lazy.” A funny thing Martin points out is how the saying serves an anagram that reinforces this message.
It’s especially gratifying that ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ is an anagram for ‘this is meant as incentive’!
Further: Martin points out how the usage of the saying is tied to the Anglo Saxon work ethic. There are many old English sayings that have the same general idea. Examples include, “One year’s seeds, seven year’s weeds,” “Procrastination is the thief of time,” and “The early bird catches the worm.” (Hmm … I still might do the last one, if only to look more closely at the origin and make an image for it …)
Does This Saying Apply Today?
Of course, it does, regardless of the metaphor. Many of us (myself included) procrastinate. Maybe we do our best work with the added pressure, but there are certain tasks and problems that require our immediate attention.
For instance, can your dishes be done later? Sure, but it is better to get them out of the way now so they don’t pile up. The same is true for any other chores around the house.
Medical problems are other issues that should be addressed immediately. However, money is often the main barrier for people (in the U.S.).
Climate change is perhaps the first issue that comes to mind. I view it as the most important, as well. That should have the world’s immediate attention because the longer we wait, the most dramatic the effects.
Speaking of climate change, I would like to address that again this week, along with other issues. Stay tuned …
BTW: Today’s my one-year anniversary on WordPress.
“a stitch in time (saves nine).” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus. Cambridge University Press. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/a-stitch-in-time-saves-nine>.
“About Wonderopolis.” Wonderopolis. National Center for Families Learning. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <http://wonderopolis.org/about>.
Martin, Gary. “A stitch in time saves nine.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-stitch-in-time.html>.
Fuller, Thomas. Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Moder, Foreign and British. 1732. Print. ix, 283. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016.
“Gnomologia: adagies and proverbs; wise sentences and witty sayings, ancient and modern, foreign and British by Fuller, Thomas, 1654-1734, comp; Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress) DLC.” Internet Archive. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <https://archive.org/stream/gnomologiaadagi00conggoog#page/n11/mode/2up>, <https://archive.org/stream/gnomologiaadagi00conggoog#page/n295/mode/2up>
Various. “Who first used the saying a stitch in time saves nine?” Yahoo! Answers. Yahoo! 14 June 2007. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070614071740AAdAzZ1>.
“Why Do People Say ‘A Stitch In Time Saves Nine’? (Wonder of the Day #147).” Wonderopolis. National Center for Families Learning. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-do-people-say-a-stitch-in-time-saves-nine/>.
“Why do we say A stitch in time saves nine?” BookBrowse. Book Browse, LLC. Web. Retrieved 28 Aug 2016. <https://www.bookbrowse.com/expressions/detail/index.cfm/expression_number/420/a-stitch-in-time-saves-nine>.