"The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry" comes from Robert Burns's To a Mouse. It is a commonly used expression, though the "mice and men" part is often omitted nowadays. In fact, not every person using the expression would be aware of its provenance.

"The burned hand teaches best" comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I have heard it used independently, but Google still points only to Tolkien. It has not yet become an independent expression coined by Tolkien - it's still a quote. People using the expression independently might find it useful to describe situations (indeed, there is a very similar expression in Hebrew, dating back to Rashi), but those people are usually Tolkien fans and children of Tolkien fans - they might use the expression, but their first encounter with it can be traced to Tolkien.

When does "The burned hand teaches best" become "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry"? When does an expression or a figure of speech acquire an independence from it's author, and become "coined by" rather than a quote?

  • 1
    Strictly speaking, you haven't quoted Burns. The original was "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley"
    – Nolimon
    Mar 25, 2019 at 21:20

1 Answer 1


I think this is a matter of opinion; but you come close with In fact, not every person using the expression would be aware of its provenance.

It becomes an "expression" or "colloquialism" when it starts being used as a figure of speech by people that heard it (obviously) but have no idea where it came from, or who authored it, and just don't care.

In order for that to happen, the phrase needs utility, it has to apply to enough situations that it is worth remembering. It must itself be memorable, a clever turn of words or sounds or unusual words, so it feels witty or erudite to the speaker. In your example, "oft go awry" is poetic, and sounds both "Old English" and formal and erudite. It sounds like you are quoting some famous writer. I can't explain why, but it is fun to say. (The whole thing, imagining mice making plans is fun.)

The "burned hand" bit is nice enough, worthy of a quote and applies in enough situations, but IMO it is not up to the mark of the "oft go awry" line.

The more insulting "Those who can't do, teach" line makes the grade, due to the surprise ending.

In this respect, I think the distinction is subjective, and this is much like joke writing. It can be difficult to be witty without being wordy and to deliver the punchline in the last word, to encourage the reader's mind in one direction and pull out the reversal punchline in the last word or two. But we are seeing something very similar going on here; the "best laid plans of mice and men" is the setup, there is alliteration, there is a suggestion of careful planning, and the equivalence of the planning of mice and men, and the "oft go " doesn't give away the surprise punchline: "awry".

That same kind of reversal doesn't work in "The Burned Hand Teaches Best"; the negative is given up front, and reversing to a positive doesn't have the same impact as reversing to a negative. A slightly better version would be "The Hand that teaches best is scarred," or going off script from that, "There Is No Teacher More Thorough Than Failure."

In a way, this IS joke writing, the phrases that make it past the "quote" stage are basically one liner jokes that really do apply to enough life situations to be worth remembering. They make people laugh, smile, or snort, or roll their eyes. As they say, it's funnier when it's true.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.