The Early Bird Catcheth the Worme

William Camden? Thomas Fuller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: People who enjoy waking up early in the morning and going to work cite the following adage:

The early bird gets the worm.

Would you please explore the history of this expression?

Quote Investigator: English historian William Camden published “Remaines Concerning Britaine” in the 17th century, and this adage appeared in the fifth edition in 1636. Here is a contiguous sampling from the list of proverbs. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Thoughts be free from toll.
Trust is the Mother of deceit.
The gray Mare is the better horse.
The lame tongue gets nothing.
The early bird catcheth the worme.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The first edition of Camden’s work in 1605 was entitled “Remaines of a Greater Worke: Concerning Britaine, the inhabitants thereof, their Languages, Names, Surnames, Empreses, Wise Speeches, Poësies, and Epitaphes”, but the “early bird” saying was absent. QI examined scans and determined that the section listing proverbs had not yet been added to the text. 2

QI also examined scans of the third edition in 1623 titled “Remaines, concerning Britaine: But especially England, and the Inhabitants thereof”. A list of proverbs was now included, but the “early bird” saying was still absent. 3

The adage did appear in the 1636 edition of “Remaines Concerning Britaine” by William Camden as noted previously.

In 1732 “Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings” collected by Thomas Fuller included the following numbered sayings: 4

5117 ‘Tis the Abilities of a Horse, that Occasions his Slavery.
5118 ‘Tis the early Bird, that catcheth the Worm.
5119 ‘Tis the Horse that stumbles, and not the Saddle.
5120 ‘Tis the last Feather, that breaks the Horse’s Back.

In 1929 scholar George Latimer Apperson published “English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary” which included an entry on the saying. The text indicated that Apperson verified the presence of the “early bird” expression in an 1870 edition of Camden’s work. Apperson also stated that the first Camden edition appeared in 1605. Some readers incorrectly assumed that the expression had been traced to 1605, but Apperson never examined the 1605 edition: 5

The early bird catches the worm. 1605: Camden, Remains, 333 (1870).

In 1942 H. L. Mencken included a pertinent entry in his opus “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Unfortunately, Mencken misinterpreted Apperson’s data: 6

The early bird catches the worm.
ENGLISH PROVERB, traced by Apperson to 1605

The entry for the adage in the 2015 “Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” pointed to the 1636 Camden edition as the earliest evidence. 7

In conclusion, this saying appeared in a collection of proverbs published in 1636 titled “Remaines Concerning Britaine” by William Camden. The 1636 edition was posthumous as Camden had died in 1623.

Image Notes: Illustration of a bird in a tree and a worm from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Portrait of William Camden circa 1609 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger located via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1636, Remaines Concerning Britaine: Their Languages, Names, Surnames,… by William Camden, Fifth Impression, Section: Proverbs, Quote Page 307, Printed by Thomas Harper for John Waterson, London. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  2. 1605, Remaines of a Greater Worke: Concerning Britaine, the inhabitants thereof, their Languages, Names, Surnames, Empreses, Wise Speeches, Poësies, and Epitaphes by William Camden, (Title in Later Edition: Remaines Concerning Britain), (Quotation is absent), Printed by G. E. for Simon Waterson, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1623, Remaines, Concerning Britaine: But especially England, and the inhabitants thereof by William Camden, The Third Impression, Reviewed, corrected, and increased, (Quotation is absent), Printed for Nicholas Okes for Simon Waterson, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Quote Pages 223, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1929, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary by G. L. Apperson (George Latimer Apperson), Quote Page 173, Column 2, J. M. Dent and Sons Limited, London. (Facsimile republished in 1969 by Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan) (Verified with hardcopy of 1969 edition)
  6. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Early, Quote Page 326, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 2015, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Edited by Jennifer Speake, Sixth Edition, Entry: The EARLY bird catches the worm, Quote Page 86, Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. (Google Books Preview)