The Rooster May Crow, But It’s the Hen Who Lays the Egg

Margaret Thatcher? Ann Richards? Joel Chandler Harris? Uncle Remus? African-American folklore? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, passed away recently, and I was reminded of a pointed saying that is credited to her. Here are three versions:

  • The cock may crow, but it’s the hen who lays the egg.
  • It is the hen that lays the egg, and the rooster crows about it.
  • Roosters crow; hens deliver.

Did she use this expression, and did she coin it?

Quote Investigator: Margaret Thatcher did employ this saying, but it has a very long history, and she did not craft it originally. In 1989 the Sunday Times of London published an appraisal of a biography of Thatcher, and the reviewer, Robert Skidelsky, stated that he heard her use a version of the expression in 1987. Boldface has been added to some passages below: 1

Above all, Thatcher never hid her belief that women are better than men at getting things done. She brought to government “the tendency of the indefatigable woman to suppose that nothing would be done right, unless she personally saw to it”. “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg,” I heard her proclaim at a private dinner party in 1987. Men are the talkers, the dreamers: Women are the doers.

The above citation was included in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” compiled by Nigel Rees. 2

A precursor saying using a different phrasing was in circulation by 1659 as noted in an entry in “The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs”: 3

The cock crows but the hen goes. 1659: Howell, 19. 1670: Ray, 5. 9.

A strong conceptual match written in heavy dialect was printed in 1881 in “Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-lore of the Old Plantation” by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris became famous in the 1800s recording and printing tales from the African-American oral tradition: 4

Rooster makes mo’ racket dan de hin w’at lay de aig.
[The rooster makes more racket than the hen that laid the egg.]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Rooster May Crow, But It’s the Hen Who Lays the Egg


  1. 1989 April 9, The Sunday Times (of London), Section: G: Books, Housewife Superstar by Robert Skidelsky, (Book Review of “One of Us: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher”), Page G1, column 4, London, England. (NewsVault GaleGroup; also Academic OneFile GaleGroup; special thanks to Jonathan Betz-Zall, Mary Somers, and Dan J. Bye)
  2. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Noise, Page 305, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2006, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs, Entry: Cock, Quote Page 105, Column 1, Wordsworth Editions Limited, London. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1881, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-lore of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris, Plantation Proverbs, Quote Page 151, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lao Tzu? Frank Outlaw? Gautama Buddha? Bishop Beckwaith? Father of Margaret Thatcher?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following people have in common: Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, supermarket magnate Frank Outlaw, spiritual teacher Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher? Each one of these individuals has been credited with versions of the following quote:

Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.

Can you sort out this confusing situation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a closely matching expression located by QI was published in a Texas newspaper feature called “What They’re Saying” in May 1977. The saying was ascribed to the creator of a successful U.S. supermarket chain called Bi-Lo: 1

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores

QI believes that this saying evolved over many decades. One interesting property that is shared between the modern expression and several precursor sayings involves wordplay. Consider five of the key words in the saying: words, actions, thoughts, character, and habits. The initial letters can be arranged to spell the repeated focal term: w, a, t, c, h. This type of wordplay will be discussed further below.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order Continue reading Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions


  1. 1977 May 18, San Antonio Light, What They’re Saying, Quote Page 7-B (NArch Page 28), Column 4, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

Margaret Thatcher? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to learn about a sentence supposedly said by Margaret Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The version I was told is:

If you want a speech made you should ask a man, but if you want something done you should ask a woman.

This is a fascinating statement, but I am incredulous. Could you investigate? Where and when did she say this? Or is this another fake quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will look into this provocative remark for you. Two important reference works, the Yale Book of Quotations [YQMT] and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OQMT], list a version of this saying that appeared in People magazine in 1975. This instance of the adage includes the prefatory phrase “In politics”. Here is an excerpt from People [PMT]:

“In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The Yale Book of Quotations also states, “Thatcher is said to have used this in a 1965 speech.” Yes, QI can report that a newspaper called the Evening News on May 20, 1965 quotes Thatcher using the phrase when addressing a women’s group.

Continue reading If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman