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Pearls of wisdom

Q From Tonnie LaRue: I looked up the word wisdom on your site, and I noticed you did not have the phrase pearls of wisdom. I do not know where it came from or any other information about the saying. I have used it when talking about a person’s advice or qualities.

A It usually refers to advice or to some sage saying, these being compared to precious pearls dropping from the lips. These days, it has to be classed as a cliché, a hackneyed phrase whose shine has been worn off through constant repetition.

It has had plenty of time to become shopworn. The first example I can find in the standard form is this:

“Oh, how beautiful you will be!” said Osborne, looking in at the door. “My! my! all gold and feathers and precious stones and pearls of wisdom! A perfect aide-de-camp!”

The Conspirators, by Robert William Chambers, 1807. The narrator is being measured for his new uniform.

There are enough other examples around at roughly the same time to show that it was already becoming a fixed phrase. The direct origin is almost certainly this well-known couplet, in which the reference is undoubtedly to pearl fisheries of various parts of the tropics:

But wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in still water, and beneath clear skies.

The Task, by William Cowper, 1781.

However, the idea goes back still further, to one of the oldest books of the Bible:

No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.

Job, chapter 28, verse 18, from the King James Bible of 1611.

The saying is decidedly modern compared with the other well-known expression involving precious concretions: pearls before swine, giving valuable things to people who won’t appreciate them. This has appeared in many forms since it was first written down:

That we ne thrauwe naght our preciouse stones touore the zuyn.

Ayenbite of Inwit, by Dan Michelis of Canterbury, 1340. The title means “Remorse of Conscience” (see my piece on inwit for more details). We might today render the line as “That we do not throw our precious stones towards the swine.”

The pearls first appear in John Langland’s poem Piers Plowman in 1362 and we’ve since had versions such as cast not your pearls before hogs and the much more recent admonition do not throw pearls to swine. The reference is Biblical, to the Gospel of Matthew, which in the King James version is “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Jan. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 9 January 2010.