Ariestess (ariestess) wrote in fandom_grammar,

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Say What: You can't get blood out of a stone/turnip. / A watched pot never boils.

Today's installment of "Say What?" will look at two phrases that deal with patience, or rather, the lack of it. You've probably heard both but may not know what they mean. So let's find out together.
[With examples from NCIS & Born Loser.]

You can't get blood out of a stone/turnip.

There are two variations on this theme, that of a stone or a turnip, though the turnip variation seems to be more of a North American phenomenon. Each has its own interesting connotations of the same basic concept: attempting the impossible and expecting results, usually revolving around the collection of a debt that cannot be paid.

"Tony, you said you'd pay me on payday. Today is payday."

"Ah, Probalicious," Tony replies with a grin, "I will gladly pay you tomorrow for a burger today."

Abby chuckles and says, "Really, McGee, don't you know that you can't get blood from a turnip?"

However, there are some inconsistencies over the first instance of these phrases' appearances. According to The Phrase Finder, You can't get blood out of a stone first appeared in the 1662 Second Alphabet by Giovanni Torriano, "To go about to fetch bloud out of stones, viz. to attempt what is impossible." But according to, the first reference to this phrase comes from J. Lydgate's Minor Poems in 1435, "Harde to likke hony out of a marbil stoon, For there is nouthir licour nor moisture." Not an identical wording of the phrase in question but the intent is still there. Its first appearance in the United States came in 1800 in the Letters from William Cobbett to Edward Thornton.

As for the turnip variation, there are two primary references that I've found. The first is a reference to the Bible, involving Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:3. It's a bit sketchy as to how it relates to a turnip specifically, as most translations say "fruits of the ground."
"Abel kept flocks (a shepherd/rancher), and Cain worked the soil (a farmer). In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock (a meat offering requiring bloodshed). The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor." (NIV)

The other reference links to Japhet in Search of a Father, a book written by Frederick Marryat and published in 1836, which states "There's no getting blood out of a turnip."

A watched pot never boils.

This is one of those phrases that we've all heard and probably even used. But where did it come from? According to, the exact origin is a mystery. And considering that I've been through a variety of websites already, I'd say the mystery may never be solved. I do know that the first known reference to this phrase was in 1848, in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life.

But one thing that is blatantly clear about all of the sites I researched is that the meaning of this phrase is clear: don't be impatient; wait for that thing to happen. Clearly, we just need to go about our lives and let things happen as they will, rather than trying to control anyone's destiny but our own. If what you need depends on someone or something else, you have to be patient and wait for it, or you're wasting time and energy.

According to An Apple A Day, this saying is nonsensical and based on an earlier, more realistic proverb, "a watched pot is long in boiling." Because, as we all know, all pots eventually boil, watched or not. This is further illustrated by the Born Loser comic strip published in the Washington Post on April 26, 2002, which says, "Whoever said, 'A watched pot never boils' obviously didn't own a microwave."

Tony stares at the phone. "She said she was gonna call today," he says to no one in particular. "Ziva, didn't she say she was gonna call today?"

Before Ziva can reply, Gibbs walks by and tosses the phone into the trash. "Didn't your mother ever teach you that a watched pot never boils, DiNozzo? Get to work!"

"Watched pot" Resources
"Blood out of a stone/turnip" Resources:
Tags: !say what, author:ariestess

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