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The meaning and origin of the expression: You can't get blood out of a stone

You can't get blood out of a stone

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'You can't get blood out of a stone'?

You cannot extract what isn't there to begin with.

What's the origin of the phrase 'You can't get blood out of a stone'?

This Old English proverb is first recorded in a collection of letters entitled Winter Evenings, by Vicesimus Knox, 1788:

They must have had abilities inherent in them or they could not have been excited, according to that common observation, that it is impossible to get blood out of a stone.

You can't get blood out of a stoneThere is, however, good reason to believe that phrases of the form 'you cannot get blood out of a [inanimate object of your choice]' originated in Italian and were later translated into English.

In the 1640s to 1660s the Italian writer Giovanni Torriano wrote several books to aid Italian/English translation. They had subtitles like "Select Italian proverbs the most significant, very usefull for travellers, and such as desire that language: the same newly made to speak English..."

In Torriano's Piazza Universale di Proverbi Italiani, 1662, we find:

There's no getting of bloud out of that wall.

In his Second Alphabet of Proverbial Phrases, 1662, Torriano used the variant of this proverb that is best known in the USA, that is 'get blood out of a turnip':

To go about to fetch bloud out of a turnip, viz. to attempt impossibilities.

The associated phrases 'like getting blood out of a stone' and 'like getting blood out of a turnip' refer to a task that is difficult to accomplish. They are usually directed at someone who is unwilling to do what you want them to, for example, "getting that skinflint Tom to pay for a round of drinks is like getting blood out if a stone".

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

You can't have your cake and eat it too

You can't get blood out of a turnip

You can't hold with the hare and run with the hounds

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs

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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