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How to use the phrase: ‘A watched pot never boils’

What does ‘A watched pot never boils’ mean?

‘A watched pot never boils’ is a proverb that refers to feeling like time goes slower when you anxiously wait for something to happen.

Graphic of a woman checking if the water is boiling, referencing the phrase "a watched pot never boils"

What is the origin of the phrase?

‘A watched pot never boils’ was coined by Poor Richard, which was the pseudonym used by Benjamin Franklin in his annual almanac. Franklin published many proverbs between 1732 and 1758. His proverbs are mostly around the central theme of ‘Industry: good; sloth: bad.’ Here are a few examples:

There are no gains without pains.

Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today!

Benjamin Franklin's quote "a watched pot is slow to boil"

Benjamin Franklin was also a noted diplomat and part of the United States envoy to France. During that time, the King told him to write a report on Franz Mesmer’s theory of ‘animal magnetism’. Here are excerpts from the report Franklin published in 1785:

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.

In addition to his work as an author and diplomat, Franklin was also a famous scientist. So, he would have known that watching a pot does not affect how long it takes to boil. Like most effective proverbs, this one is poetic and should not be taken literally.

Related: We have a whole section dedicated to expressions and proverbs, such as “What Does ‘Chip Off the Old Block’ Mean?”

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By Patrice Riley

Patrice Riley is the pen name of Dr. Deborah Riley. She is a retired English professor that enjoys grammar, literature, and all things writing.

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