Famous Sayings #190 — ‘Separate the Wheat from the Chaff’

January 11, 2021

Fifty people showed up for team tryouts, but only 25 of us made the cut. The entire process will separate the wheat from the chaff.

separate the wheat from the chaff, wheat, chaff, Bible, proverb, famous sayings
Image by Couleur from Pixabay

The expression “separate the wheat from the chaff” is one that has been on my mind for a while, but I never thought too deeply about the phrase’s origin besides its obvious connection to agriculture. This expression can apply to people or objects, but it is more often applied to people.


What Does It Mean to ‘Separate the Wheat from the Chaff’?

When someone “separates the wheat from the chaff,” they are determining which items or individuals in a group are good and valuable and which are of lower quality or worthless (The Free Dictionary). To put it nicely, separating the wheat from the chaff means finding people who are serious about a cause or self-improvement, or those who are better equipped to face adversity.

The expression refers to the ancient practice of winnowing, in which the grains from wheat or cereals are separated from the husks surrounding the seeds. The process was originally done entirely by hand, but in most countries, it is mechanized (The Free Dictionary).

The chaff is the scaly casing of seeds of grassy plants, like cereal grains or wheat. Chaff is also the plant material found in the scaly parts of flowers or finely chopped straw. In agriculture, chaff is often used as fodder for livestock (“Chaff”). Alternatively, chaff is used as waste material that is plowed into the ground or burned (“How if chaff”).

In the literal sense, separating the grain from the chaff is important for humans, because we cannot digest the chaff. Figuratively, chaff is “the refuse or worthless part of anything” (1911 Encyclopedia). Thus, organizations and teams, e.g., need to find the best people to ensure their success.


Where Did This Phrase Originate?

According to Merriam-Webster, the phrase “separate the wheat from the chaff” is British in origin. However, the metaphor clearly has biblical roots.

The metaphor can be found several times in the Bible, most notably in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, where John the Baptist says that Jesus will determine which people will be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven and which people will be sent to hell. Both verses have the exact quote (via the King James Version of the Bible):

Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

Both Gospels refer to the event where John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness in Judea and baptizing all who came to him and repented of their sins in preparation for the coming of Jesus. When John saw that some Pharisees and Sadducees had come to be baptized, John told them that they first needed to repent but that they would ultimately be judged by someone mightier than him. And just like someone winnowing, this other person would find the worthiest among them (wheat) to allow into the Kingdom of Heaven and cast away the unworthy (chaff).

Jesus eventually came to Judea and asked John the Baptist to baptize him. John did as he was asked, and God could send a message from the heavens to his Son.

The mention of chaff can also be found in the Book of Psalms (1:4):

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Early use of the proverb as we know it can be found in Anderson Crow (1920) by G.B. McCutcheon: “The separated the wheat from the chaff” (The Free Dictionary).


What Do You Think of When You Hear the Phrase ‘Separate the Wheat from the Chaff’?

Besides sports, the phrase makes me think about the hiring process, “Hell Week” in the military, but also people working in social and/or political movements. To be honest, it’s the last example that weighs heavily on my mind.

#ForceTheVote

Late in 2020, there was a movement to force a floor vote on the United States House of Representatives for Medicare for All. The idea behind the vote was for the farthest left Democrats in the chamber to get some concessions from Nancy Pelosi, who wanted to be re-elected as House Speaker. Since the Democrats had lost seats in the last election, Pelosi would need to have 216-218 votes to win, giving members of the Progressive Congress some rare leverage. (The Democrats currently have an 11-seat majority in the House, with 222 seats to the Republicans’ 211; there are 2 vacant seats. That means that 5-7 defections would force another round of votes until there was a consensus.)

Without going into depth about my feelings on the issue — or addressing the surrounding drama that mostly played on out Twitter and YouTube — the movement showed those paying attention to it who was serious about gaining power for the left and fighting for a better health care system in the United States. Now, there was a chance that the vote might fail, but there was no chance for success without an attempt. In short, there was no attempt from the progressives in Congress to use their leverage and enough Democrats voted for Pelosi without resistance.

The Lesson?

This whole episode might seem small in the scheme of things, but it contained several lessons. For one thing, when starting a movement for something worthwhile, we must be selective about leadership. Secondly, we must be willing to fail on the path to greater success. Third, we should not put so must trust in politicians. In fact, we need to hold them accountable and be willing to criticize them directly when they fail to serve the people. And finally, if we disagree on a strategy, we need to remain respectful towards our allies and work toward a better strategy. But we need to first determine who our allies and enemies really are — i.e., separate the wheat from the chaff.

I will talk/write about this subject in greater depth later because it is worth talking about, especially in these times. In the meantime, think about what this phrase means to you, and don’t be afraid to share.


Works Cited

“How is chaff separated from wheat?” FindAnyAnswer, Last Updated 22 June 2020, https://findanyanswer.com/how-is-chaff-separated-from-wheat. Accessed 9 January 2021.

“LUKE 3:17 KJV.” King James Bible Online, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Luke-3-17/. Accessed 10 January 2021.

“MATTHEW 3:12 KJV.” King James Bible Online, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Matthew-3-12/. Accessed 10 January 2021.

“PSALMS 1:4 KJV.” King James Bible Online, https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Psalms-1-4/. Accessed 11 January 2021.

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.” The Free Dictionary, Farlex Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/separate+the+wheat+from+the+chaff. Retrieved 9 January 2021.

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/separate%20the%20wheat%20from%20the%20chaff. Accessed 9 January 2021.

Various Authors. “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chaff.” Wikisource, Updated 16 April 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Chaff.

Various Authors. “Chaff.” Wikipedia, Updated 4 January 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaff. Accessed 9 January 2021.

“What Does Separate the Wheat from the Chaff Mean?” Writing Explained, https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/separate-the-wheat-from-the-chaf. Accessed 9 January 2021.

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

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