Do Not Wait To Strike Till the Iron Is Hot; But Make It Hot By Striking

William Butler Yeats? William B. Sprague? Benjamin Franklin? Richard Sharp? Charles Lamb? Charles Caleb Colton? Oliver Cromwell? Peleg Sprague? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb highlights the limited duration of an opportunity:

Strike while the iron is hot.

This metaphor has been astutely extended with advice for greater challenges:

Make the iron hot by striking.

This full metaphor has been credited to the English military leader Oliver Cromwell, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The basic proverb appeared in one of “The Canterbury Tales” called “The Tale of Melibeus” by Geoffrey Chaucer written in the latter half of the 1300s. Here is the original spelling together with a modern rendition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

…whil that iren is hoot men scholden smyte…
…while the iron is hot men should smite…

The earliest full match known to QI appeared in a 1782 letter from the famous statesman Benjamin Franklin to Reverend Richard Price about using the press to spread ideas. The letter was included in “Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price” published in 1815: 2

The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers which are every where read, gives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find, that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot, but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Do Not Wait To Strike Till the Iron Is Hot; But Make It Hot By Striking


  1. 1860, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Edited by Thomas Wright, The Tale of Melibeus, Start Page 150, Quote Page 152, Richard Griffin and Company, London and Glasgow. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1815, Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price by William Morgan, Volume 5, (Letter within footnote), Letter from: Benjamin Franklin, Letter to: Richard Price, Letter date: June 13, 1782, Start Page 95, Quote Page 96, Printed for R. Hunter, Successor to J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Nits Will Be Lice

John Nalson? Oliver Cromwell? Tom Quick? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Historically, non-combatants have sometimes been deliberately attacked during warfare. A cruel motto has been employed to rationalize the targeting of young people. Here are three versions:

Nits make lice.
Nits will become lice.
Nits will be lice.

A “nit” refers to the egg of a head louse especially when it is attached to a human hair. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Warning: This article discusses cruel and inhumane activities. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1683 book by an English historian named John Nalson titled “An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State from the Beginning of the Scotch Rebellion in the Year MDCXXXIX to the Murther of King Charles I”. While discussing warfare in Ireland the author stated that barbarities were committed by combatants on all sides. He also stated that one of his relatives who had served in the military heard the motto spoken during battle. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . I have heard a Relation of my own, who was a Captain in that Service, Relate, that no manner of Compassion or Discrimination was shewed either to Age or Sex, but that the little Children were promiscuously Sufferers with the Guilty, and that if any who had some grains of Compassion reprehended the Soldiers for this unchristian Inhumanity, they would scoffingly reply, Why? Nits will be Lice, and so would dispatch them . . .

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nits Will Be Lice


  1. 1683, Title: An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State: From the Beginning of the Scotch Rebellion in the Year MDCXXXIX, To the Murther of King Charles I: Wherein the first occasions, and the whole series of the late troubles in England, Scotland & Ireland, are faithfully represented. Taken from authentic records, and methodically digested, Author: John Nalson, Section: The Introduction, Quote Page vii, Printed for S. Mearne, T. Dring, B. Tooke, T. Sawbrige, and C. Mearne, London. (Early English Books Online 2 and HathiTrust)