Retracing the Spilled Milk Proverb

We’ve all been there. Something disappointing happens, and the next thing you know, someone has given the reminder: “Don’t cry over spilled milk.”  

Or “there’s no use crying over spilled milk,” “the milk is spilled” or many other paraphrases of the proverb.  

No matter how you say the proverb, the phrase means that you should not be upset over something that has already happened and cannot be changed. (But if it actually is spilled milk, losing a glass of delicious milk is a pretty good reason to cry!) 

What is meant to be a nice sentiment, the proverb has a curious wording. Why do we say it and when did the proverb begin?  

Well, we don’t know. But it goes back centuries. And while we can’t go back to the past and listen for someone to offer the line, we can browse old writings.  

For example, an 1872 short story in a magazine called Once A Week used today’s modern phrasing in a short story: 

“There’s no use in crying over spilt milk.” 

By then, though, it was already a known sentiment, though the saying itself had evolved. And that change happened in a very short time. There is a book by Hannah Maria Jones called Katharine Bereford; or, The Shade and Sunshine of Woman’s Life: A Romantic Story, 1852, which reads: 

“But it’s no use fretting over shed milk.” 

And before that, James Howell used the phrase in his Paramoigraphy, or Proverbs, in 1659, saying: 

“No weeping for shed milk.” 

This means that while it might not be written, some form of the saying existed even before this collection was put together! So whether it comes from a dairy farmer with an ill-behaved cow that consistently kicked the pail over or a mother with a clumsy child, there’s old-world wisdom that what’s done is done and there’s always more milk to come. Next time you use it, even as a pun on a baking mishap, think back to how long milk has been important enough to be used as life advice. 

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