Ever Wondered Where These Popular Gardening-Related Phrases Come From?

Have you ever noticed how many figures of speech we use in our everyday conversations that have some gardening-related themes to them? Consider, for example, phrases such as:

• “The grass is always greener on the other side.”
• “That kid is growing like a weed!”
• “She really has a green thumb.”

These and other phrases are commonly used by speakers of the English language. But where do they come from, and how were they popularized?

Let’s take a look at some linguistic history.

The grass is always greener on the other side [of the fence]

This proverb essentially means that people have a tendency to believe others have it better than they do, even if that’s not necessarily the case. People frequently believe they would be happier or better off in a different set of circumstances, but usually have a lack of understanding about what those other circumstances actually are.
The origins of the proverb go back to the writings of the poet Ovid, who lived from about 43 BC to 18 AD. He wrote, “the harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” This is the same general idea—when times get rough for you, or even when things are going well, it’s easy to look at what other people have and assume their lives are better than yours.

Green thumb

The phrase “green thumb” is used to describe a person who is particularly adept at gardening. It comes from the fact that algae that grows on the outside of clay pots will stain a person’s fingers if they handle them long enough, meaning a person who spends enough time gardening or working with plants will literally have a “green thumb.”
While linguists are unsure exactly when and where the term originated, there is a popular theory that it came from the reign of King Edward I in England, who was quite fond of green peas and devoted a number of servants to shelling them during the season. He would give a prize to the servant with the “greenest thumb.”

Growing like a weed

This phrase is typically used to describe a child who is rapidly growing taller or going through growth spurts. The imagery here is obvious—weeds tend to grow obnoxiously fast, making it difficult for gardeners to keep up with them. A child who is “growing like a weed” probably grows out of his or her clothes quite quickly, which can make matters difficult on the parents.

Can you think of any other examples of common idioms or phrases that have gardening-related elements to them? Chances are they have an interesting history behind them! Soil Advocates would enjoy sharing and learning about your stories on this subject, you can reach us at admin@soiladvocates.ca or 289-221-0164.

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About the Author:

Dr. Leanne J Philip, BSc. (Hon.); MSc.; PhD. is the Managing Director & Chief Scientist of Soil Advocates Inc. She studied at the University of Guelph as an undergraduate (Plant Biology, Environmental Management and Urban Horticulture) and as a graduate student (Plant & Soil Interactions). She has a keen interest in soil sciences, which lead her to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for doctoral studies in soil carbon sequestration and movement within British Columbia’s clear-cut soils. Further work in soil sciences in Europe and Canada reinforced Dr. Philip’s belief that soil processes and mechanisms belowground drive aboveground aesthetics and plant interactions. While active in both research, mentorship and teaching, most recently Dr. Philip has been working in applied soil sciences in industry and community outreach. Dr. Philip is a native of southern Ontario and is a strong advocate for scientific literacy within her community and responsible environmental stewardship.

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