Famous Sayings: #97 — ‘You Can Lead a Horse to Water…’

January 21, 2018

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, English proverb, famous sayings, full employment
Image by jjsala via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This one will be relatively quick.

I can’t quite remember when I first heard this phrase, but it was likely when I was watching television. I have heard quite a bit of proverbs in which horses were mentioned (also from television shows), but this is perhaps my favorite.


What Does the Phrase Mean?

When someone says, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” that person means that “you can give someone an opportunity but not force them to take it” (BBC). You can’t and shouldn’t do everything for a person, but there’s nothing wrong with giving people an opportunity to do something worthwhile.


Who First Said, ‘You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can’t Make It Drink’?

According to Gary Martin the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” was the oldest English proverb still in use today. The phrase was first found in Old English Homilies, which dates back 1175.

Here’s the phrase as it appeared in the book:

Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken.

That translates to, “Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?”

The phrase was listed in John Heywood’s glossary entitled, A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue:

A man maie well bring a horse to the water,
But he cannot make him drinke without he will.

I was able to find these versions of the phrase on the Internet Archive, in a book from 1910 that cited other books of proverbs.

The phrase also appeared in the 1602 play entitled, Naricissus, A Twelfe Night merriment, played by youths of the parish at the College of Saint John the Baptist in Oxford. In this part of the play, Tyresius entered the scene where Cephisus, Lyriope, and Narcissus were already talking.

Here are the lines of Tyresius around line 242:

Tyr. Then sith to thee, my sonne, I doe pronounce ill,
It shall behove thee for to take good counsell,
And that eft soone; wisdoome they say is good,
Your parents ambo have done what they coode,
They can but bringe horse to the water brinke,
But horse may choose whether that horse will drinke.


What Made Me Think of This Proverb?

Funnily enough, I thought of this phrase while engaged in a debate with someone this past week. While things got testy at times (I assure you I was not the cause of it), I was calm for the most part and did my best to present evidence to support my points, often to no avail. It was clear that the person I was debating would rather double down and make ad hominems in order to save face.

When I debate someone or present any type of argument, I want to do all that I reasonable can to make my case. Although I might not be able to persuade everyone, I want my argument to be solid so my opponents have no valid excuse to ignore it. But there will be some people who refuse to acknowledge valid counterarguments and evidence that contradicts certain narratives.

Now, I don’t believe the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water …” doesn’t quite fit here, unless we’re talking about giving people the opportunity to accept a counterargument, accept evidence, or to quit while they’re ahead. But there might be something else I care about which might.

Full Employment, Anyone?

To put it bluntly, I hate the state of the U.S. job market. While there is no excuse for people who don’t try to look for work, there is an underrated uncertainty in it and the official unemployment numbers belie that problems prospective workers face. For one thing, people have to sift through employment opportunities that are really scams and/or offered by people who want to violate or otherwise skirt employment laws. In other cases, there are unnecessary or unreasonable barriers to entry for those just entering the job market.

While I understand that businesses have certain restrictions to weed out applicants, why should an “entry-level” job require 5 years’ experience? Why should an internship require 1-2 years’ experience? People have to get their start somewhere, but this is proof that “the market” doesn’t offer as many solutions as advertised.

One solution would be for the U.S. government to help establish a full employment system. Everyone who is 18 years of age or older and able to work would be able to work in government jobs and there could be grants to small businesses in order to help people find work in the private sector. We could also get qualified prisoners work so they could earn money and help bring down the recidivism rate.

Of course, we would have to start small. Such a program would need to be researched and we can pilot the program in states or municipalities, but it’s worth the effort.

Of course, not everyone will take these opportunities. Alas, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. At the very least, those, I want for there to be a fair amount of opportunities so that no one has an excuse for failure.


Works Cited

Lee, Margaret L. “The Project Gutenberg eBook of Narcissus, A Twelfe Night merriment by Margaret L. Lee.” Project Gutenberg. eBook. Access via the web. Retrieved 21 Jan 2018. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41726/41726-h/41726-h.htm>.

Martin, Gary. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 21 Jan 2017. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water.html>.

Skeat, Walter. William. Early English proverbs, chiefly of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with illustrative quotations. Oxford Clarendon Press. 1910. Print (but Viewed via Internet Archive). Retrieved 21 Jan 2018. <https://archive.org/stream/earlyenglishprov00skeauoft#page/n27/mode/2up/search/horse>.

“You can lead a horse to water…” Learning English. British Broadcasting Company (BBC); Last Updated 24 Sept 2012. Archived Webpage. Retrieved 21 Jan 2018. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/language/2012/09/120924_todays_phrase_horse_to_water.shtml>.

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