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The meaning and origin of the expression: A watched pot never boils

A watched pot never boils

What's the meaning of the phrase 'A watched pot never boils'?

The proverbial expression 'a watched pot never boils' refers to the feeling time seems to go slower when you are anxiously waiting for something to happen.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A watched pot never boils'?

'A watched pot never boils' is one of the homely and improving proverbs that is ascribed to Poor Richard, which was the pseudonym that Benjamin Franklin used when publishing his widely popular annual almanac. Franklin, a tireless and industrious polymath, was fixated on such improving aphorisms and published numerous of them in the guise of Poor Richard between 1732 and 1758. The general theme of the proverbs can be summed up as 'Industry: good; sloth: bad'. They include:

A watched pot never boilsThere are no gains without pains.
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
Plough deep while sluggards sleep and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.
Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today.

Amongst many other callings, Franklin was a noted diplomat and during his time as United States envoy to France he was directed by the King to write a report on Franz Mesmer's controversial theory of 'animal magnetism'. In the report, published in 1785, Franklin included this text:

Finally another Breakfast is ordered. One Servant runs for fresh Water, another for Coals. The Bellows are plied with a will. I was very Hungry; it was so late; "a watched pot is slow to boil," as Poor Richard says.

Actually, Franklin ought to have written "as Poor Richard might have said", as the proverb isn't found in any of the Poor Richard almanacs. That's a moot point however, Franklin and Poor Richard being one and the same.

Of course, Franklin was also a celebrated scientist and would have been aware that watching a pot has no effect on how long it takes to boil. Like many of the most effective proverbs, this one is poetic rather than literal.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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