“Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch” – Phrase Origin

Has someone just told you not to count your chickens before they hatch? The phrase is older than some nations and literally means to stop and let things unfold. 

The origin of the phrase “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” dates back to 1570, first mentioned in a book of poems by poet Thomas Howell. However, the phrase was likely used before this point in some form or another in medieval stories and fables. 

Below, I’ll go over the phrase, tell you about alternatives and what it means, and provide some examples. But first, let’s discuss how this famous phrase was coined. 

How the Phrase “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch” Was Coined   

The very first usage tracked down by historians for “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch” was in poet Thomas Howell’s New Sonnets and Pretty Pamphlets. This book was published in 1570 and was used in the context of a story. It was written quite differently back then, literally stating:

“Counte not thy Chickens that unhatched be / Wayne wordes as winde, till though finde certaintee.” 

As you can see, the second verse also has a similar meaning to the first, indicating that you should be careful with your words until you’re certain of an outcome

That said, Howell was likely not the first to say this phrase, as some suspect it may have been used in other stories and fables of the time. Historians have yet to find it written earlier, though. Hence, it’s impossible to tell if this was a commonly used phrase at the time.

What the Phrase Means

The phrase “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” means to wait until you’re sure before counting on something. It’s basically telling you to err on the side of caution rather than optimism and wait until things have unfolded before you start making plans. 

So, if someone says to you, “don’t count your chickens yet,” they may be asking you not to plan or bet on something you’re unsure of even happening. 

Literal Meaning of “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch”

When you think about the phrase literally, it makes sense. Especially in 1570, when most people were farmers or at least getting eggs from their farmer, counting eggs before they hatched could have detrimental consequences.

For example, if a farmer assumes all of their eggs will hatch, they may end up promising their customers an unrealistic number of eggs. They may overspend their budget because they expect more chickens and more money. If they don’t have as many chickens hatching as expected, they may have less food to eat than planned and fewer eggs to sell to customers.

In this way, you can relate to the phrase. Your eggs aren’t yet chickens—they’re still eggs. So counting your chickens isn’t a good use of time because planning for all your eggs to turn into chickens could potentially set you up for failure. 

This Type of Speech Is Called an Idiom 

An idiom is a word or phrase that differs from the literal meaning of its individual words. Idioms are often used in everyday speech but can also be found in literature and song lyrics.

The phrase “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” is an example of an idiom because it has a deeper meaning than what you might think at first glance. When you hear this phrase, someone isn’t asking you to take it in a literal context, nor asking you to go count your chickens. They’re implying a second layer of meaning.

Idioms are often confused with metaphors and similes, because just like these two types of phrases, they often require the listener to go beyond the literal and find the true meaning. 

Metaphors are a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. In the context of the idiom, a metaphor would sound like “you are a farmer counting their chickens before they hatch.” The difference between the idiom and the metaphor is how the phrase is applied.

Similes are more closely related to metaphors, and are defined as a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing. The only difference is the use of the word “as” or “like”. For example, “You are like a farmer, counting their chickens before they hatch.”

Alternative Forms of the Phrase

Typically, you’ll hear this phrase said in one of four ways:

  • “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
  • “Don’t count your eggs before they hatch.”
  • “Don’t count your eggs yet.”
  • “Don’t count your chickens yet.”

All of the above phrases have the same meaning!

Similar Idioms in Other Languages

Though the meaning can be interpreted in any language, this phrase isn’t commonly used outside of English. Alternatively, other languages use different phrases meaning the same thing that are colloquially more understandable in their language. 

For example, in German, there’s a common phrase that goes as follows: 

“Don’t praise the day before evening.” (“Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben!”)

This phrase means that if you start to celebrate your day before the evening comes, you may find there was nothing to celebrate in the first place.

Additionally, in Spanish and French, their respective idioms are translated to something similar to:

“Don’t sell the bear skin until you’ve killed the bear.”

Again, this means to err on the side of caution until you’re sure what will happen! 

When To Use the Phrase

This phrase is extremely versatile and has numerous other uses beyond counting chickens or predicting future events—it can also be used as encouragement for people who are trying new things or taking risks in their lives and careers.

Some examples of when you can use this phrase include:

  • As a response to someone who is overly confident about something that hasn’t happened yet – for example, if they say something like, “I’m going to get an A on this test because I studied really hard!” or “I’m sure I’ll get hired at my dream job because I have 10 years of relevant experience.”
  • As a way of reassuring someone who is worried about a potential future event.
  • As a warning for someone who might not plan ahead or consider all possible outcomes before making decisions that affect themselves or others.

Examples of “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch”

The phrase is used to illustrate the importance of being cautious, not making assumptions about the future, and being patient.

The idea is that if you have a lot of eggs in one basket and something goes wrong with that investment, everything else you’re counting on falls apart as well because everything was built around it being successful.

Here are two real-life examples of the phrase:

  • If you invest all your money in one stock that you think will be great, you may buy a boat and a house with your savings because you’re hoping your investment will come back threefold. However, if it turns out to be worthless or otherwise loses value, this will cause all other investments or sources of income to be in danger because everything was built around having continued growth from that one original investment. 
  • Say you’re planning on moving into a new house soon and trying to outbid another couple on it. If you buy all the furniture you need for that house, send out invitations for the housewarming party, and start changing your address on your documents just to find out the other couple outbids you for the house, you’ll have a lot of backtracking to do.

Final Thoughts 

The phrase “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” may sound outdated, but it’s not. In fact, this phrase is still very much used in the modern day and age.

To our knowledge, the phrase was first written in the 1570s and has since been a household phrase for English speakers. This idiom has a universal meaning—don’t think too optimistically until the future unfolds—and the phrase is used in different forms in many other languages.