You’ve probably heard this little chestnut a million times: “a stitch in time saves nine.” WTF? Nine what? And who the heck stitches time? Does this assume you are some sort of seamstress/theoretical physicist (a cross between Martha Stewart and Albert Einstein) who can gather up the time continuum, feed it through a sewing machine, and place a neat hem stitching to hold it together? Or this something that requires “Back to the Future” gear, like the DeLorian DMC-12, C6 2.9L with built-in Flux Capacitor? This is some pretty trippy stuff. One can imagine counterculture psychedelic guru Timothy Leary discussing this proverb: “I can explain it to you — but it will blow your mind, man! Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Before we head to outer space, let’s begin our journey of discovery on terra firma. Many proverbs originated in the Enlightenment, a time when people were less focused on psychedelic trips and more focused on intellectual and spiritual growth, not to mention practical improvements in everyday life — hence the proliferation of wisdom via memorable proverbs. Proverbs from those times often use rather dated diction, sentence structure, as well as refer to antiquated practices and contexts. This particular proverb checks two of those boxes: it has an odd sentence structure and refers to sewing (not obsolete, of course, but who sews these days?). So to answer the first question posed at the outset, nine refers to stitches: a stitch in time saves nine stitches. The unusual structure is that the sentence is truncated (the removal of key words) and missing punctuation that would help to clarify it: so re-written in modern English, it would appear as: “A stitch, completed in time (i.e., now), saves having to complete nine stitches later.” Much clearer, right? And that re-written form of this metaphorical epigram (the technical rhetorical term for this type of proverb) gets to its true meaning: don’t procrastinate! That is to say, fix it now, while the problem is small and manageable before it gets to be a real cluster fuck! See — those early Europeans knew a thing or two about life!
Now that we understand the meaning, let’s trace its origins as best we can, thanks to two old proverb reference books. The proverb first appears in England in 1732 as noted in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern Foreign and British: “a stitch in time may save nine.” The proverb next appears in print over a half century later in Bartlett Whiting’s his seminal work, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, published in 1797. Time and travel across the pond have modified the proverb a tiny bit: “a stitch in time saves nine” as it is recorded in an early American journal. It is in the formal journal, that we get some insight into the diction. Fuller enlightens us: “Because verses are easier got by heart, and stick faster in the memory than prose; and because ordinary people use to be much taken with the clinking of syllables; many of our proverbs are so formed, and very often put into false rhymes; as, a stitch in time, may save nine; many a little will make a mickle. This little artiface, I imagine, was contrived purposely to make the sense abide the longer in the memory, by reason of its oddness and archness.” To be more specific, the proverb uses a half, or imperfect rhyme (rhyming “nine” with “time”) in order to make it more memorable.
There are several other proverbs that address procrastination, for example: “There’s no time like the present” and “An ounce of presentation is worth a pound of cure.”
Sewing class is now dismissed.
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For further reading: Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by Bartlett Whiting
Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs by Thomas Fuller