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.
- 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) ↩
- 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Noise, Page 305, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs, Entry: Cock, Quote Page 105, Column 1, Wordsworth Editions Limited, London. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 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 ↩