The Young Sow Wild Oats. The Old Grow Sage

Winston Churchill? Stephen Fry? Henry James Byron? W. Davenport Adams? Aubrey Stewart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The recent memoir by English comedian and actor Stephen Fry contains the following intriguing remark: 1

‘Young men sow wild oats, old men grow sage,’ Churchill is reputed to have said. It almost never is Churchill. In fact collectors of quotations call such laziness in attribution ‘Churchillian creep’.

Was this wordplay created by Winston Churchill?

Quote Investigator: There is some evidence that Churchill employed this quip on his 77th birthday, but it was circulating before he was born.

The earliest appearance located by QI was in a play titled “The Pilgrim of Love! A Fairy Romance” by Henry James Byron which was first performed in 1860. In the following passage a character was afraid that he was losing control of a young person he was responsible for mentoring. Emphasis added by QI: 2

I’m getting on, and so, as his majority
Approaches, I observe that my authority
Declines—but youth, we know, will have its fling,
And there’s a period for everything.
This gardener’s rule applies to youth and age,
When young sow wild oats, but when old grow sage.

Regarding Stephen Fry’s phrase ‘Churchillian creep’, it was probably inspired by the term ‘Churchillian drift’ coined by top quotation researcher Nigel Rees. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The saying appeared in a collection of “English Epigrams” selected by W. Davenport Adams and published circa 1878 according to Worldcat. Adams credited Byron: 4

Good Advice.

This gardener’s rule applies to youth and age:—
When young “sow wild oats,” but when old “grow sage.”
Henry James Byron.

In 1897 “The Globe” of London published a review of “English Epigrams and Epitaphs” by Aubrey Stewart. The reviewer criticized Stewart for not reporting that Byron’s couplet was embedded in a comical play: 5

It will not do, either, to take a couplet from its context and put it forward as an epigram in the true literary sense of the word. H. J. Byron’s distich:—

“This gardener’s rule applies to youth and age:
When young sow wild oats, but when old grow sage”

is all very well, but it is only an extract from one of his burlesques.

In 1906 “The Baltimore Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland reprinted a short item from a New York newspaper: 6

Essay On Gardening.

Youths sow wild oats,
But when they get a certain age
They burn their boats,
And (metaphorically) grow sage!
—New York Sun.

The jest continued to circulate in 1920 when the following miscellaneous set of expressions appeared in a Springfield, Missouri newspaper: 7

SAGE SAYINGS

It’s a wise joke that knows its own father.
Everything comes to the man who pays cash.
Young men sow wild oats, old ones grow sage.

In 1926 several newspapers printed a variant joke: 8

Perhaps the most difficult farming project under way is trying to grow sage from wild oats.

In 1952 the “Reader’s Digest” attributed an instance to Winston Churchill while acknowledging a Pennsylvanian newspaper. Churchill lived to age 90 in 1965: 9

The Young in Heart

WINSTON CHURCHILL, apropos of his 77th birthday: “We are happier in many ways when we are old than when we are young. The young sow wild oats. The old grow sage.”
— Philadelphia Evening Bulletin

In 1953 the words were ascribed to Churchill in the solution to a cryptogram puzzle: 10

Churchill cogency: “The young sow wild oats; the old grow sage.”

In 1954 the “Reader’s Digest” item about Churchill achieved additional wide distribution when it was reprinted in the syndicated column “Office Cat”. 11

In 1968 the industrious quotation compiler Evan Esar credited Churchill with an instance in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”. 12 Yet, in 1978 Esar’s “The Comic Encyclopedia” included a verse without attribution that was very similar to the jest from 1860: 13

The gardener’s rule
Applies to youth and age:
When young, you sow wild oats;
When old, grow sage.

In conclusion, Henry James Byron crafted this joke and included it in a play performed in 1860. The quip was repeated and evolved for many decades. Evidence suggests that Winston Churchill employed a version on his 77th birthday which occurred in November 1951. This claim appeared in “Philadelphia Evening Bulletin” as reprinted in the “Readers Digest” in September 1952. QI has not seen the instance in the “Philadelphia Evening Bulletin”.

Image Notes: Picture of Salvia officinalis (Sage); author: Kurt Stüber. Picture of Chasmanthium latifolium (Indian woodoats); author: Bcbaker2390; both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Picture of Winston Churchill displaying V sign circa 1943 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

(Great thanks to Nigel Rees who wrote about this saying in the April 2017 issue of “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter”. He pointed to the passage in Fry’s memoir. His comment led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 2015 (Copyright 2014), More Fool Me: A Memoir by Stephen Fry, Chapter: The Early Days, Section: Waiting for My Man, The Overlook Press: Peter Mayer Publishers, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  2. Date: First Performed at the Theatre Royal Haymarker (under the management of Mr. Buckstone), on Easter Monday, April 9th, 1860, Title: The Pilgrim of Love! A Fairy Romance, in One Act, Author: Henry James Byron, Scene: 1, Character Speaking: Ebben Bonannen, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Publisher: Thomas Hailes Lacy, London (Google Books Full View) link
  3. The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1992-1996, Issue: April 1993, Volume 2, Number 2, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: The Vagueness Is All, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk link (Compilation 1992-1996 available as Kindle ebook)
  4. 1878 (Worldcat estimate), English Epigrams, Selected and Arranged by W. Davenport Adams (William Davenport Adams), Section: Miscellaneous, Quote Page 269, George Routledge and Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1897 September 10, The Globe, Epigrams in Verse, Quote Page 6, Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1906 June 30, The Baltimore Sun, Essay On Gardening (filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1920 July 18, The Springfield Leader, Sage Sayings, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Springfield, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1926 August 30, The Evening Republican, Barbs, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1952 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 61, The Young in Heart, Quote Page 168, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 1953 January 25, The Montgomery Advertiser, Cryptogram by Andrew (Solution to Last Sunday’s Cryptogram), Quote Page 4C, Column 7, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1954 January 5, The Kingston Daily Freeman, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 14, Column 2, Newspaper Location: Kingston, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Section: Young and Old, Quote Page 894, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1978, The Comic Encyclopedia by Evan Esar, Topic: Verse Epigram, Quote Page 789, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)