Glossary Home Proverbs

Waste not, want not

“Waste not, want not” asks everyone to pay attention to what they “waste” as that waste might lead to “want.”

“Waste not, want not” is a direct, universally applicable proverb that should appeal to readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. This also means that it can be used in a lot of different situations and conversations. This proverb, unlike some, does not require deciphering to understand. While the syntax might be a little more complicated than most proverbs and phrases in the English language today, it makes sense when one stops to think about it. 

Waste not, want not meaning


Meaning of “Waste not, want not” 

“Waste not, want not,” asks everyone to pay attention to what they “waste” as that waste might lead to “want.” Due to the vagueness of this phrase, it can apply to almost any situation. One might use it to remind someone they know or don’t know to waste food, water, or any other resource. It should also be noted that the popularity of this proverb also rests in its alliterative construction. The repetition of the “w” and “n” consonant sounds help make this phrase fun to say and easy to remember. But, like most sayings that attempt to summarize an action or choice, there is no possibility of a “grey” in-between area in which wasting might not necessarily lead to wanting. 


When to Use “Waste not, want not” 

As mentioned above, this phrase can be used in a variety of situations. One might use it to remind a friend or family member to turn off the faucet, save loads of laundry, mend their clothes rather than throw them away, recycle, or any other environmentally friendly cause. but, these are far from the only possible uses for the phrase. It’s possible to imagine using it more ephemerally to speak about relationships, job opportunities, and more. English language speakers should also be aware that it’s possible to use this phrase antagonistically. One might use it to insult someone, suggesting that what they’re doing is “waste” when they don’t consider it to be. It might also be used passive-aggressively with strangers. 


Example Sentences With “Waste not, want not” 

  • Remember what they say, Jeff, waste not, want not. 
  • I think she needs to be reminded of that phrase, waste not, want not. 
  • Hey! Lady! Waste not want not! Don’t throw that in the trash!
  • Haven’t you people ever heard of recycling?! Waste not, want not. 
  • Marcus! It’s time to get out of the shower. Waste want not!


Why Do Writers Use “Waste not, want not?” 

Writers use “waste not, want not” in the same way and for the same reasons that they use other proverbs and proverbs. It can be used in dialogue between characters in the same way it would be used in everyday speech. That being said, it’s fairly unusual to hear someone say “waste not, want not” in a common conversation, so a writer’s attempts at including it in dialogue might fall flat. Alternatively, phrases like this, which are slightly dated, can also help readers accurately place a speaker in time or pick out their age. Language and dialogue are some of the best resources writers have to craft a character’s various dimensions. 


Origins of “Waste not, want not” 

“Waste not, want not,” like most provebs, does not have a clear origin. It has been used by various writers, speakers, and everyday people for centuries. It is thought that it dates back to at least 1772. The first citation of it in the United States can be traced back to 1932 when it appeared in Topper Takes a Trip by T. Smith, featured in “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman. This vague beginning in the United States is made even more complicated by some suggests of the phrase dating all the way back to the 1500s with the alliterative version: 

Willful waste makes woeful want

This is a great example of how a phrase can evolve over time. Whether this truly does date from the 1500s or not, it does provide readers with an alternative phrasing. Other possible rephrasing includes “waste, and you will want” and “wasting leads to wanting.” 


Related Idioms and Provebs

  • “Snowed under.” 
  • Time is money.”
  • “Weather the storm.” 
  • “Well begun is half done.” 
  • “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” 
  • Extend an olive branch.” 
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